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Mahler, Ninth Symphony and Adagio from Tenth Symphony: London Symphony Orchestra; Valery Gergiev (conductor). Barbican Hall, London 3.3.11 (JPr)

I had thought Lorin Maazel lingered unduly over Mahler's Ninth Symphony and then only a few days before this concert I heard Christoph Eschenbach conduct a highly dissected, very languid and richly lyrical account - full of sincerity and bittersweet melancholy - yet one that also blazed throughout with a searing inner tension (link please ).

Cue Gergiev and what would he do with it? Well, those who have attended his previous Mahler performances - as I have - probably knew what to expect. Given the chance - regardless of the symphony - Gergiev lets rip in his Mahler; it is often brash, fast and furious … and he is uniformly 'operatic' with its bold statements.

As I indicated in that recent review Mahler's Ninth Symphony dwells on moments of resignation and regret due to its use of the 'Lebe wohl' (Farewell) motif from Beethoven's Les adieux piano sonata, also there is a clear quote from the hymn 'Abide with me'. Mahler had been diagnosed with a dodgy heart and his favourite daughter had died, so it was not the best of times for the composer. However, often in all the desolation and angst in the music there is the delicacy of wistful nostalgia and perhaps Mahler is not thinking about his own passing but is using this symphony as a commentary on the end of the previous century and the beginning of the new one. Because this was not the last music he composed, perhaps he was in fact saying 'Farewell' to his old compositional style and ushering in the new Mahler of the (ultimately uncompleted) Tenth Symphony; its Adagio would be performed in the second half of this concert.

The first movement proved to be the most elegiac of the two outer ones yet there was a railing against the 'dying of the light' apparent here that set the tone for the whole performance. Here and in the Adagio fourth movement - played at an unusually brisk tempo - if someone is dying here then they are not going quietly. Gergiev seems to have an objective approach to the life-and-death struggles inherent in all this music. In the Ländler-inspired second movement he gives us the reminiscences of an old man recounting the derring-do tales of his youth. The Scherzo was naturally chaotic but suitably vital and urgent, whilst the moment of reflection ushered in by Philip Cobb's masterly trumpet call was - under Gergiev's quivering fingers - very fleeting. In this movement Mahler unleashes the full fury of his contrapuntal musical ire at his perceived critics.

Towards the end of the symphony the playing remained somewhat angular and abrupt; while some sense of spiritual reverence was apparent it was not very much and the ending was somewhat emotionally ambivalent. Hearing it like this maybe Mahler's view of his future was not as clear-cut as some would want us to believe. Does this lack of emotive depth work for this symphony … possibly it does, though many may argue it does not. It is remarkable how one symphony can get two such different readings as those of Eschenbach and Gergiev: this performance - following one the night before - was recorded for later release on LSO Live when others will get the chance to comment on whether Gergiev is right or wrong in his approach.

The London Symphony Orchestra always play well for their principal conductor and excelled on this occasion; their committed playing was energetic, intense, crisp and precise - both in the Ninth Symphony and the short Adagio from the Tenth that completed this concert. After a foreboding but unusually calm introduction to the Adagio that belied the dramas to follow, Gergiev pressed on to give the rhythmic material a rather devilish quality. Towards the end the infamous dissonant chords blasted out over the solo trumpet's shriek and our nightmare vision of where Mahler might have been going with his new music in his Tenth Symphony ends and a quiet coda brings with it an atmosphere of long overdue repose.

Mahler never heard his ninth or tenth Symphonies performed in his lifetime and in London there have been three different interpretations (Dudamel, Eschenbach and Gergiev) in a matter of several weeks. I never heard Dudamel and for me the best version I have heard so far this year was conducted by Daniel Capps with an orchestra - called The Mahler Orchestra - who had come together only for that January weekend to play the Ninth Symphony. Since 2001 a group of musicians - young and old, amateur or professional - have come together over a weekend each year to perform each of Mahler's symphonies in turn with Keith Willis, a wonderful music educator, pianist and conductor. He had plans to do them in order over a decade but though that never exactly went to plan he was preparing the Ninth Symphony when he became unwell. With Keith present in the audience, Daniel Capps conducted a remarkable performance with an orchestra full of past students, colleagues and friends, very much as a celebration of Keith's achievement. Keith Willis died at the end of February and it is sad that someone who - similarly to Mahler - gave so freely of himself to others did not live long enough to continue to reap more pleasure from what he was able to do.

© Jim Pritchard



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