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Mahler's Symphony No. 7: London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City, 23.2.2011 (SSM)

Much of the musical criticism written about Mahler is based on the assumption that his music is deeply connected to his personal state of mind and events in his daily life. This is true of all composers, but more so for the neurasthenic Mahler. Completed in 1905 but not performed until 1908, the Seventh Symphony apparently received only minor modifications during a three-year period that saw Mahler's relative happiness turn tragic with the death of his first daughter and the diagnosis of a serious heart condition. In addition to the traumas associated with his personal life, his long and fruitful relationship with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra turned sour, forcing him to resign.

Anyone who attended this concert and expected to be swept away by the melancholy one can feel when listening to Mahler did not find it here. Anyone hoping to find in Mahler's Nachtmusik 1 an eerie world of off-key marches, nerve-shivering Alphorn calls and the sounds of creepy frogs, insects and night birds, or to be transported in Nachtmusik 2 to a romantic forest where mysterious creatures live and fairies dance through the night would be greatly disappointed. This performance of Mahler's Seventh Symphony was not for the traditionalist.

Valery Gergiev's conception of this work is clearly revisionist. All the movements were taken at a clip, most noticeably No. 2 and No. 4, the two Nachtmusik movements. The first of these is usually performed as a Walpurgisnacht, opening with plaintive and suspicious Alphorn-like calls followed by a chromatic downward slide at the end of the first crescendo, a scary descent to the devil; a dance that sounds slightly off; and whimpering, shaky final notes. Gergiev avoids the ominous: the horn calls are conversations, not mysterious communications. The first chromatic slide lands on the ground with a thud and continues no further. The score's instruction for playing the march/dance that appears at the tempo change to " Sempre l'istresso" is "Nicht eilen, Sehr gemächlich." Mahler wants the conductor not only to slow down, but to lead the orchestra in a leisurely fashion, which Gergiev did, but he conducted it in a way more reminiscent of Elgar's formal marches written for royal occasions than of Berlioz's tragic "March to the Scaffold" from the Symphonie Fantastique.

The second Nachtmusik, marked Andante amoroso, opens with a romantic violin solo. Again Gergiev's tempi edged toward the extreme and led to my one complaint: the orchestra overpowered the guitar and mandolin, two instruments that would make the movement into a real serenade. In Gergiev's performance we don't clearly hear the guitar until the coda, when most of the other instruments in the orchestra are silent and the guitar helps close the movement with a quiet ping.

The fact that these two pieces were completed at least a year before the rest of the symphony was written certainly doesn't preclude the possibility of revisions having been made. But what Gergiev clearly sees is the elemental fact that Mahler wrote the original movements at a happier time in his life and left us one Nachtmusik movement marked Allegro moderato, which was played here just that way; and one Nachtmusik marked Andante Amoroso and played here as a romantic serenade.

The opening of the symphony sounded somewhat thin and I wondered where Gergiev was going. It didn't take long to find out. Shortly into the first movement Mahler gives us a yearning motif marked Mit grossem Schwung that is often played with a strong accent on the first beat. Gergiev evened out the accents, making it less plaintive and more songful. Mahler specified that the conductor should take this passage with great élan, and that is exactly what Gergiev did. In other performances it can seem that midway through this movement Mahler lost his way, with every cadence appearing to be the final one. Gergiev kept a steady momentum going from beginning to end, smoothing over any choppiness and giving structure to the piece.

The Scherzo marked Schattenhaft is perhaps meant to be a less joyous movement, but Gergiev deemphasized the decadence of this waltz and put it more in line with earlier symphonic composers such as Schumann and Brahms. The trio has a looser structure than classical trio sections: several sub-sections of varying tempi return to the primary section not as an exact repeat of the opening but as if Mahler were writing a development section of classical sonata form. The movement ends with the winds imitating bird songs, but Gergiev sees them as songbirds while most other conductors see mourning doves.

The Finale, which sounds as if it's going to segue into the overture to "Der Meistersinger," is, like the earlier movements, an orchestral showpiece. Gergiev has every section of the orchestra well trained and in the final movement let out all the stops: the brass flawlessly produced bright silver tones and the winds outdid themselves in rapidly running passages. The colors that Gergiev draws from the orchestra are synesthetic: one can literally hear the colors or see the music. The ability to make an orchestra play with such solidarity is rare these days and reminds me of the performances of the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner (albeit with a very different conducting style). If this Mahler is representative of all of Gergiev-LSO performances, we have one great partnership here.

Alex Ross in his blog speaks of a friend recovering from heart surgery, listening to Mahler's Seventh and feeling a "'quasi return to life,' the symphony's convulsions and mysteries giving away to 'visions of transcendent joy and vitality'." What he relates is an apt description of Gergiev's life-enhancing performance here.

Stan Metzger

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