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SEEN AND HEARD UK CONCERT REVIEW
Prom 26: Mahler:
Camilla Tilling (soprano), World Orchestra for Peace, Valery Gergiev, 5.8.2010 (BBr)
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major (1892/1899–1900 rev 1901/1910)
Symphony No. 5 in C# minor (1901/1902)
It’s such an obviously sensible idea to couple these two Symphonies in concert that I am amazed it isn’t done more often. The fact that the 5th Symphony grows from a mere moment in the first movement of the 4th cements them forever together in musical congress. There, of course, the connection ends, for the 4th, although not without its darker side, ends with a child’s vision of heaven, and the 5th takes us through the gates of hell, before becoming playful and singing a love song.
Much was expected from tonight’s performers, but, for me, it often, wasn’t right. In the earlier work, Gergiev seemed detached from the music, standing some way away and giving a dispassionate reading. True, he conjured some glorious sonorities from the orchestra, especially when the scoring was of a chamber music type, and here there was real intimacy, but overall the feeling was bland. Only in the second movement, where death takes up the fiddle, did Gergiev really seem to be comfortable with the work. The great slow movement lacked intensity and focus, but Camilla Tilling was excellent as the child in the finale. Hers is exactly the kind of innocent voice required here, not some big operatic soprano, but her contribution came too late to save this performance.
The 5th was slightly better, but there were still problems. Gergiev didn’t seem to have a real concept of the architecture of the music. He achieved the correct tone of lament in the first movement, and fury in the second but it was still light on feeling. This continued into the scherzo which, despite some fine solo horn playing from the principal, didn’t have the requisite schwung to it. In the Adagietto, which is too familiar for all the wrong reasons, Gergiev’s nearly ten minutes seemed to drag, and the climaxes were overblown for such a delicate flower. I don’t like comparing a recording to a live performance, but it must be said that Mengelberg’s 1926 recording of this movement seems perfect at about 8 minutes for he keeps the music moving and never sentimentalises it as it was here. My comments for the scherzo are equally valid for the finale.
So what went wrong? Taken as a whole, the climaxes were exciting, but not once were they built satisfactorily; they simply happened and then they were gone. So often the music didn’t speak as it should, and the sections between climaxes appeared as lacunae, seeming to be unimportant in the scheme of things. I cannot really understand what Gergiev’s scheme was. He didn’t seem up the music, keeping his distance and being uninvolved in the progress of the pieces.
The playing wasn’t of the highest standard either, entries being fluffed – although this could have been due to Gergiev’s unusual technique and his inability to signal exactly what he wanted. Too often the first violins sounded grossly understrung – despite there being 15 players – with a lack of real involvement in the playing.
Despite my reservations, the packed Albert Hall gave Gergiev and his orchestra an ovation, and, to be sure, the performance was exciting and brash. But it wasn’t great Mahler playing, nor did we hear great interpretations. This music really needs a Haitink, Herbig or Jansons, to name but three, to really penetrate the depths of this music, to bring out the inner conflicts and to overcome the, occasional, tub–thumping rhetoric which Mahler insists on putting into these works.