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"Gergiev's Mahler", Sibelius and Schoenberg : Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Laura Claycomb (soprano) Valery Gergiev (Conductor) London Symphony Orchestra,  Barbican Hall, London, 12. 1.2008 and 13.1.2008 (AO)

Sibelius, Violin Concerto
Mahler, Symphony 4

Schoenberg, Pelleas und Melisande
Mahler, Symphony 1

Mahler’s symphonies are so integrated as a group that it’s important to understand them as a whole as well as individually.  This Barbican series is a rare chance for one conductor to create a real “cycle”, with one orchestra, and in a short time span, revealing how the symphonies relate as a trajectory. Certain symphonies, however, stand out as tests, taking the measure of the conductor’s concept.  Very loosely speaking  indeed, the 2nd , 3rd, 4th and 8th reveal more about how a conductor grasps Mahler’s inner ideas, while the 1st, 5th and 6th don’t quite need the same approach.

That’s why hearing the 4th and the 1st Symphony together makes sense. Gergiev’s performances this weekend provided “proof of concept” for they were so dramatically different.  If one can speculate at all about the series, Gergiev’s Mahler veers most definitely away from the sensitivities of the 4th towards a broad brush, flashy 1st. Not that there’s anything wrong in that per se. Every conductor reveals something of himself in the way he approaches his work, and it doesn’t particularly bother me that "Gergiev’s Mahler" is exactly that – Gergiev’s Mahler, highly idiosyncrasic and unorthodox.  The real issue is understanding why it diverges so much from other performance ideas.  It’s certainly not simply because Gergiev is Russian or conducts opera. For one thing, there are many good Russian Mahler conductors, such as Sanderling and Barshai, with much the same background as Gergiev, whose credentials as a symphonic conductor are well established.

The well judged performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, with the brilliant Leonidas Kavakos as soloist, augured well.  Gergiev integrated the orchestra so exactly with the violin part that it revealed how sensitive he can be when he connects with depth to what he conducts.  However, Mahler’s 4th Symphony came across almost like a run-through, so little insight did it reveal of the symphony’s inner complexities.  It was as if Gergiev was inhibited by the quiet, contemplative spirit, restraining himself to the extent that he missed the underlying energy that pulls the symphony forward to its ecstatic conclusion.  Clues abound right from the start, but this approach seemed to skim the surface, without tapping the hidden tensions.  I’d really hoped Gergiev would make more of the Freund Hein motifs, and the darkness in the third movement, but the emphasis here was non-committal, episodic rather than integrated into a deeper exploration of how the symphony works.  A lost opportunity then, but I’ll credit Gergiev for trying something different.

No stillness, then, in the second concert the following day.  Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande condenses the long story into a concise symphonic poem.  It’s really nothing like Debussy, but the basic elements are totally not dissimilar – images of water, innocence, violence, barbarity and richness interact.  In this performance, Golo clumps about all over, while Melisande cowers in the sidelines. Gergiev made so much of the brass and percussion that the winds and strings didn’t stand much chance.

An astute friend jokes that Gergiev has three default settings, loud, very loud and VERY LOUD. Of course that´s not strictly true as he can do quiet when he wants to, but this performance of Mahler´s 1st Symphony would certainly stressed volume above subtlety. Of course it was exciting on a visceral, rollicking level.  The audience was ecstatic, wildly applauding at the end.  This is the one symphony where Gergiev´s extreme, one dimensional interpretation might work, because Mahler´s protagonist is a brash fellow, full of himself, out to conquer the world.  But there´s so much more.  Recently Neeme Järvi - an Estonian born in the former USSR - conducted a warm, self deprecating version, making the most of the irony in the music.  Gergiev did observe the vernal aspects ij the score, but again, they were incidents, rather than integrated into an overall conception.  The real weakness wasn´t the performance so much as the way it didn´t seem to exist as part of a cycle. Of course it should be heard on its own terms, but because this is part of a series, it needs to relate to an overall appreciation of the group.

The series isn´t called "Gergiev´s Mahler" for nothing as Gergiev takes a very individualistic approach to Mahler and why not ?  He can´t pretend to be anything he is not: better then,  that he should create off the wall, oddball interpretations that thrill at least some sections of the audience. But it is a one-dimensional approach, which ignores the complexities that characterise the composer´s  essence.  It´s fine for the first-time listener, but it´s   superficial, ultimately unsatisfying for anyone expecting more.  My  main concern is that listeners may become habituated to brash, superficial Mahler because it does excite on a basic, primitive level.

I was delighted when the LSO chose Gergiev and Harding as  conductors because they are complete opposites.  Harding´s Mahler is  more attuned to the current European approach to Mahler that Abbado  and Boulez and others represent. Musically intelligent and  perceptive as Harding was, his performances didn´t go down too well  with audiences at the time, perhaps because they were so different from the usual fare people are used to.  It takes time to appreciate something genuinely different.  After hearing Gergiev, maybe  audiences might have more
appreciation of just how much more there still is to learn about Mahler.

BBC Radio 3 will broadcast this series on consecutive nights from 28th January in the order : 1st, 3rd, 4th and 6th.  The broadcasts will be part of the Performance on Three programmes, which usually remain available for listening online for a week.

Anne Ozorio

Full details of the BBC broadcasts can be found here.


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