Symphony No.6 in A minor
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 28 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
There was much to admire in this (second) performance – the confident playing, Mariss Jansons’s non-histrionic view, the diligent preparation and the committed realisation. However, the four movements didn’t gel. Mahler’s return to ’classical’ symphonic design is a framework for one of his most personal works, one that essays a ’no way out’ scenario as starkly as any major work of similar persuasion. This full-circle symphony – ending as it begun, in A minor – needs a tragic import from the very opening. This Jansons failed to find. The tempo was too fast, crucially, and throughout this opening movement there was little sense of struggle, of overcoming the elements. While Jansons unfolded the three-part exposition with clarity, and duly repeated it (as Mahler requests, to really emphasise his traditional scheme), various episodes arrived with too little identification. When we reached the off-stage cowbells episode (curiously non-atmospheric here), there was nothing to suggest ’far away’ aspiration. Thus the coda, with its emotional lift, which Jansons essayed vividly, brought scarcely any reason for such triumph.
Jansons is surely right to place the slow movement second; it now seems after decades of debate that this is what the composer wanted. It’s long been my preference. Yet here, ironically, the pounding of the ’Scherzo’ would have been welcome to emphasise what was underplayed in the opening movement. The slow one was perfectly paced and enjoyed superfine string balances and no lack of frisson when Mahler develops tranquillity to opulence. Yet, such intensification only really means something if the first movement has (seemingly) vanquished the foe. Returning to earth with the ’Scherzo’, Jansons dealt adroitly, and with vivid characterisation, with its ’games’, yet the spiralling downwards to renewed acquaintance with disaster went for very little.
Ideally, if the ’Scherzo’ is third, then the huge ’Finale’ should crash in attacca. A big tuning-up session here, however practical, really lost the plot. But, then, if you’re going to emphasise the classicism of Mahler 6, what’s the point of the extended last movement, which brings the ’hero’ (Mahler’s term) crashing to defeat? No point at all, really, for although the hammer blows (just the two, Jansons goes with the superstitious Mahler and leaves the third one out) were superb both timbrally and in impact, there was no aftermath: the LSO just carried on as if nothing had happened; no shock waves, no terror.
While one can appreciate Jansons’s directness – working wonders, for example, with the false redemption before the third (or not) stroke – such a course fails to reveal the psychological aspects of this symphony: side-step the crucial moments and this symphony doesn’t add up, which is what happened here despite the magnificence of the occasion. In short, Jansons took the LSO all the way in mastering the text but not the sub-text.