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Mahler, Symphony No. 7: London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham. 25.3.2011 (CT)

It would not be unreasonable to assert that Valery Gergiev's recent recorded cycle of the Mahler Symphonies with the LSO has polarised opinion amongst both critics and the public alike. By Gergiev's own admission however, the Seventh Symphony presents as daunting a prospect to a conductor as any in Mahler's canon. "Conducting Mahler 7 was for me the scariest project of them all. I dread this Symphony." Such were the conductor's own words to Gramophone magazine on his recording of the work.

Gergiev goes on to talk of the enigmatic nature of the Symphony, of unlocking its "strange shape" and finding a route through its issues of "direction, line and proportion".

All were factors that raced through the mind in Birmingham's Symphony Hall when listening to Gergiev's uniquely individual response to the emotional extremes and disturbing visions of Mahler's eighty minute epic. The Russian appeared intently focused on asking both orchestra and audience to explore a new, singularly individual vision of the work; to examine the facets of the work's five movements from differing angles and to join him on a voyage of discovery that occasionally deviated markedly from the interpretations of many of the great Mahlerian maestros that have gone before him.

To this listener, Gergiev's was an approach that manifested itself as obsessive in its attention to tempi and structure. This was Mahler painted in broad brush strokes; a response that in its attempt to find that elusive route through the sheer vastness and architectural awkwardness of the music occasionally lost its focus on the equally obsessive detail, manic extremes and conversely subtle nuances of the composer's own intentions.

The haunting, baleful sound of the tenor horn was beautifully intoned to open the first movement, with Gergiev setting an atmosphere of uneasy tension, yet it was the control of that tension that sometimes threatened to undermine the sterling work of the orchestra through the early stages of the symphony. Gergiev seemed more at home in Nachtmusik 1 where the procession of moods and styles were captured with magical effect whilst conversely that nagging attention to structure somewhat humanised the ghosts and demons of the Scherzo, music that of anything from Mahler's canon, could be put to good use in a Tim Burton movie.

The pastoral setting of Nachtmusik II was painted with just the right degree of bucolic spirit, the mandolin and guitar beautifully placed in the sound picture, the ambiguity of the Finale and the blazing apotheosis of the first movement march theme handled with deft skill; yet the fact remained that this was a very personal journey through Mahler's Seventh Symphony indeed. This was Valery Gergiev's own take on a "difficult" work that had to be rationalised and even tamed in his own mind.

For the London Symphony Orchestra's part, Gergiev had the players eating out of the palms of his famously quivering hands. Whether the audience in its entirety bought into his Mahlerian vision or not, the orchestra showed no hesitation, demonstrating levels of technical mastery and precision of ensemble that left no doubt as to the health of this still magnificent sounding orchestra and its rapt response to Gergiev's direction.

If there was a section that could be singled out for particular praise though, it was the brass, led with magnificent maturity and panache by the young, recently appointed principal of the trumpet section Philip Cobb. With further outstanding contributions from principal trombonist Dudley Bright and James Maynard on tenor horn, there is no doubt that Cobb is a worthy successor to the late, great Maurice Murphy, the LSO's outstanding principal trumpet of many years who passed away only a matter of weeks ago.

With the London Symphony Orchestra in glowingly wonderful form then, those who admire Gergiev will have revelled in the expansive, yet undeniably powerful gestures of his Mahler 7. For those who harbour doubts about his credentials as a Mahler interpreter of stature however, this was a performance that might just have raised as many questions as it answered.

Christopher Thomas

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