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GUSTAV MAHLER: Symphony No. 7, Orchestre National de Lyons, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 31st January, 2005 (AO)

The Orchestre Nationale de Lyons is a good orchestra, as their recordings attest. No less than Kent Nagano made his reputation at the orchestra of the Opéra de Lyons, and with the new music repertoire that the Orchestre favours. Indeed, the two orchestras share personnel and are based in nearby buildings. So high expectations greeted their all too rare appearance in this country, under a new conductor, Alan Gilbert. There was just one item on the programme: Mahler's difficult, quixotic Seventh Symphony. Gilbert has conducted this symphony several times, in the United States and Europe.

Alas, it was as if the evil spirits hinted at in the nightmare music unleashed themselves to wreak havoc on the evening. Seldom has the critical importance of the first figure on tenor horn been so highlighted. Get the introduction wrong and the whole thing derails. It was a horrible technical mistake by a player who obviously was as much shocked as anyone else: the whole ensemble seemed demoralised in sympathy. A conductor is like the captain of a ship: once it starts to lurch, his job is to get it back on course quickly and stave off further disaster. Gilbert focussed on the player in question, whose role in the symphony is so critical, and guided him through the repeats until he regained his poise. With a perfect orchestra, there's often less for a conductor to do, but when things go wrong, as they do, then the conductor comes into his or her own. Emergency attention is what's needed, finesse can come later. Gilbert's technique was based on supporting critical players, letting others fall in place gradually. As a violinist and chamber performer himself, he understood Mahler's orchestral dynamics. His hand and baton movements were clear, even to me, and rather beautiful. He drew out shapes in phrasing, triangles to follow triads, fingers moving one by one fluidly, to indicate chromatic passages. I had come to hear how Gilbert conducted, and so I found this concert quite instructive. Alarming perhaps this concert was, but a masterclass of a curious sort in its own way.

The first movement remained shaky – even the cymbals clashed with a tentative timidity. The horns were on track in the recapitulation, but by then it was too late. The more muted mood of the first Nachtmusik seemed to settle things. The horn “dialogues” evoked a sense of distance and the marches sounded suitably unmartial – like memories of bands in summer parks, heard as if through a dream. There may not have been an arching breadth of vision but the procession of images and figures did evoke a sense of dream images flashing past before the brain takes them in. Gilbert showed no arching sense of vision, but in the circumstances – and in the context of the deliberate “shadows” of the Nachtmusiks, being explicit was not altogether essential. An "impressionist" reading, perhaps?

Nonetheless, the orchestra was not to regain its full composure until the final movement. The contrast with what had happened earlier could not have been greater. The Rondo Finale can be heard as the triumph of confidence regained, of success after disaster, of a happy dawn after a night of strange dreams. Never, I think, has it been performed with such obvious, genuine sincerity. The orchestra played with sharp focus and clear attack, each repetition more glorious than the next. Much of this performance was disturbing, like watching a traffic accident unfold. But the conductor and orchestra showed their true colours by pulling together and reasserting their real abilities. The infelicities apart, I felt that this redeemed them. Its shows that the Orchestre National de Lyons and Alan Gilbert are not to be written off on the basis of this single performance, which I suspect that they too learned something

Anne Ozorio



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