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Shchedrin, Strauss and Mahler: London Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Marriner (clarinet), Rachel Gough (bassoon); Valery Gergiev (conductor). Barbican Hall, London 26.9.2010 (JPr)

A concert review is not a place to dwell on politics but the old Soviet Union imposed a stifling uniformity on artistic creativity; Rodion Shchedrin, followed Shostakovich as President of the Union of Composers in 1973 and perhaps, with hindsight, his acceptance of the post was a case of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’ … but who really knows? Most of the ‘state-sponsored’ music of the time seems to have disappeared but Shchedrin himself appears to be one of the few survivors from that era – and it cannot do any harm to have someone like Valery Gergiev to advance his music.

A number of the London Symphony Orchestra’s concerts this season feature Shchedrin’s music and the 77-year-old composer was present at this gala concert in aid of the 2010 Lord Mayor’s Appeal. I have not heard any of Shchedrin’s compositions before and I hope some are more worthy that his 1963 eight minute Concerto for Orchestra No.1 (‘Naughty Limericks’). The programme book suggests this subtitle ‘points to roots in folk culture, as if to remind Soviet authorities that subversiveness and high spirits could in fact be politically correct’. Is it really possible to read all this (and more) into something so short? Henry Mancini’s score for Orson Welles’s 1958 film ‘Touch of Evil’ underscores the famous opening 3 minute long tracking shot with a very similar mishmash of musical idioms and jazzy tricks. ‘Naughty Limericks’ requires a bravura performance from all sections of the orchestra and it is not surprising that Leonard Bernstein was an admirer of the piece; but truth be told, it is rather trivial stuff.

Next in this rather unworthy opening half (to a concert featuring a Mahler Symphony after the interval) was Strauss’s Duett-Concertino for Clarinet, Bassoon, Strings and Harp. It was composed in 1947 and was Strauss’s last work for orchestra. There is a story behind the three movement Concertino; apparently a dancing princess (the clarinet) is alarmed by the attentions of a bear (the bassoon) who turns out to be a prince – surprise, surprise – when she dances with him. It is lyrical, romantic Strauss at his ‘Indian Summer’ best. The LSO principals thrust to the front of the stage acquitted themselves very well; however, I was too aware of the mechanics of how Andrew Marriner and Rachel Gough played their instruments and could only feel that the overall performance would have been improved had they sat amongst their colleagues as they normally do.

Another LSO Principal, Philip Cobb on the trumpet, distinguished himself right from his forlorn, exposed start at the beginning of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I must admit to being an admirer of Gergiev’s Mahler. Like his younger compatriot, Vladmir Jurowski, this is typically Russian Mahler. For Jurowski it is a Tchaikovsky-inspired forensic dissection, whilst for Gergiev it is a no-holds-barred, more instinctive, exploration of Mahler’s neuroses distilled with the symphonies of – the even more neurotic - Shostakovich. Gergiev seems to have gained more enthusiasm for this music since his infamous Mahler cycle in 2008/9: never have I seen him more animated on the podium and never has his toothpick been flourished quite so vigorously or the wiggling of his fingers seem so exaggerated.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is believed to progress from death (the opening Funeral March) to the triumph of life over death with the brass chorale at the end. Under Gergiev’s fingers there is little relief from an all-pervading raw, dark, brooding intensity. Climax builds on climax with unyielding momentum, yet there was an oasis of beauty and calm in a well-paced, meditative Adagietto, before, eschewing triumphalism at the end, there is just a sense of resignation for what life – inevitably - has in store for us all. Unfortunately, no one else currently conducts Mahler like this

Jim Pritchard

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