Kirill Gerstein (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 26 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
It could be argued that Mahler’s Sixth Symphony – “the only Sixth, despite the Pastoral”, according to Alban Berg – needs no companion and should stand alone. It is one of the few great symphonies, besides Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, Brahms’s Fourth and Sibelius’s Fourth, which end in complete tragedy.
On this occasion however the pairing with Richard Strauss’s Burleske worked surprisingly well, his youthful confection acting as a bonne bouche for the more serious business to follow. It’s difficult to know just how to take Strauss’s work. Despite its D minor key and self-evident heroics, there is an agreeably tongue-in-cheek quality to this expansive single movement as though the composer were serving us up a particularly wicked parody of all those nineteenth-century proto-Lisztian piano concertos. Some performers take the whole thing at face-value and treat it with a portentous weight that places it firmly in this line. Not so Kirill Gerstein who, ably abetted by Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at their most elegant, found an insouciant, airy grace which rendered it wholly digestible. There was a pussyfooting delicacy to the very opening, timpani prefiguring Salome’s ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, and also to the work’s throwaway ending, yet the more virtuoso passages were despatched with invigorating panache. Gerstein is a born chamber musician, which showed in his delighted exchanges with wind soloists. Bychkov is a natural Straussian, relishing the kitsch but never over-egging it. Incidentally, Burleske figured in Strauss’s last-ever London concert in this very hall in October 1947. He conducted and Alfred Blumen was the soloist, the performance now preserved on the Testament label.
Mahler’s 6 has had some outstanding London performances, most recently from Lorin Maazel with the Philharmonia Orchestra and several years ago from Pierre Boulez with the LSO. Although seldom less than well-played (raucous trumpets apart), unfortunately this Proms account was something of a curate’s egg; very good in parts but not the whole story. It may be that Bychkov is a more natural Straussian than a Mahlerian, for those sections of the finale which represent Mahler at his most opulent came off particularly well. However, the pacing of the first two movements – the Allegro energico opening movement succeeded on this occasion by the scherzo (the middle movements’ order is contentious, see link below) – was less than satisfactory, fractionally too fast in the first movement (which Mahler qualified by adding ‘ma non troppo’) to allow for its full weight, and too widely varied in the scherzo to maintain momentum, an initially swift tempo succeeded by a trio section too slow and over-nuanced (despite Richard Simpson’s eloquent oboe-playing).
The last two movements were on an altogether different level. With a gentle, flowing tempo and a memorably secure and sensitive contribution from Martin Owen on horn, deeply embedded in the string texture, the Andante moderato had the requisite other-worldly quality as though one were breathing a different, more rarefied air (although the cowbells both here and throughout the work sounded like clattering crockery rather than magical tinkling from an Alpine meadow). Only the string-dominated climax slightly disappointed; for all the beauty of the playing one longed for it to slip the leash and soar aloft unfettered.
Best of all was the massive Finale, which felt almost as much symphonic poem as symphonic movement. After a really detailed response to its disturbing introduction – with a full complement of four harps – there was ferocious energy and grip as the music drove forward. The gradual build-up to the first hammer-blow was handled with particular patience and both strikes made their full impact. (The third ‘superstitious’ blow that Mahler removed was eschewed; some conductors have reinstated it.) Part of the success was due to Bychkov’s ability to characterise those contrasting episodes of stillness whilst still obtaining and sustaining full power at the climaxes. The trombone and tuba threnody at the very close was especially eloquent.