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Mahler, Sixth Symphony: London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev, The Sage Concert Hall, Gateshead/Newcastle upon Tyne, 21.11.2007 (JL)

One of the projects with which Valery Gergiev is celebrating his recent appointment as  Principal Conductor of the  London Symphony Orchestra is to build  a new cycle of the Mahler symphonies.  This concert was the unveiling of his interpretation of the Sixth prior to a London performance the following day.

Having been brought up on recordings associated with the post war Mahler revival, I suspected I would have to readjust to a very different reading to that from, for example, Barbirolli in his famous recording with the New Philharmonia in the sixties.  Barbirolli's incredibly slow tempo in the march music of the first movement suggests he saw the work in Brucknerian terms as, in the words of the cliché, a cathedral in sound. When I first heard the recording I did not know that Mahler's instructions were " Allegro energico" and “vehement with plenty of vigour”.  Barbirolli chose to ignore the composer’s intention but nevertheless produced a powerful and persuasive account.

Gergiev's way with the first movement was surely closer to what Mahler meant, launching into the march with spectacular “energico”. Energy is one of the hallmarks of Gergiev’s style and as you might expect it suffused the whole movement which gave the music a sense of disturbing agitation that contrasts so tellingly with the brief moments of peaceful reflection represented by the tinkling cowbells, which, by the way, sounded disappointingly like the distant rattle of pots and pans in this performance.  His tempo might be over 25% faster than Barbirolli’s  but it  was close to current common practice.

As a whole, the Sixth Symphony has little opportunity for repose, so when such moments occur they can have a profound and what some people might think of as a mystical effect. Gergiev tends to maintain a sense of continuing momentum and dynamic through such passages that some would find inappropriate. For example, the monumental last movement, which is probably the spiritual heart of the work, opens with  rising glissandi on celeste and harp that launch a soaring motive in the violins. It is a passage that recurs and Mahlerians such as Barbirolli, Rattle and  Abbado invest it  with a sense  of magic and mysticism that Gergiev does not seem to attempt in the same way, not taking much heed, in my opinion, of Mahler’s “Sostenuto” marking.  What he did provide, especially in that last movement, was an unmatched savagery -  crescendi were devastating, the famous hammer blows shattering.

Interpretation may depend on what the conductor thinks the symphony is 'about.' Otto Klemperer, a Mahler enthusiast, made a revealing confession. He thought it a - “great work. The last movement is a cosmos in itself; it’s a tragic synthesis of life and death. But I must honestly say I don’t understand it”.  Maybe this was why Klemperer, a musician  of great integrity, never conducted the work.  Schoenberg, a composing protégé of Mahler, was less reticent. He referred to the first movement as a -  “frightful struggle. But then, it’s sorrow-torn upheaval automatically generates its opposite, the unearthly passage with the cowbells, whose cool, icy comfort from a height which is reached only by one who soars to resignation; only he can hear it who understands what heavenly voices whisper without animal warmth”. There will be those who could do with more of the “heavenly” and “unearthly” in Gergiev’s interpretation but  what he does serve up though is the “struggle”, with a degree of frightening visceral energy that I have never heard before in this work.

The quality of the performance could not have been achieved without the magnificent tool at Gergiev’s disposal - the London Symphony Orchestra. The ensemble played magnificently, and Mahler’s extraordinary textures were heard to superb effect in the splendid acoustic of The Sage concert Hall – something that Londoners would be denied in the less flattering Barbican Hall the next day.  Responding to every nuance with impeccable accuracy, the orchestra’s   sound is bright, slick and up front, qualities that Gergiev has built up with his Kirov orchestra over many years. The strings may not produce the indulgent, lush, blended romantic sound that some may like to hear in the Andante, but that’s the way it is. Incidentally, Gergiev played the Andante after the first movement. Mahler originally put the Scherzo there, later changed his mind, then changed it again. I must say that I much prefer Gergiev’s solution to this thorny problem.

The Gergiev/LSO Mahler cycle is due to be completed by Summer next year. No doubt there will be plans to record and market the cycle in its entirety. When this happens it will deserve to be regarded as a major recording event. 


John Leeman

The London  Barbican Hall performance of this concert together with
Tishchenko's Cello Concerto No 1 (1963) will be broadcast by  BBC Radio 3 on January 31st 2008. (Ed)


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