LSO / Gergiev

Mahler: Symphonies 5 & 7; Karetnikov: Symphony No.4; Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No.1

Barbican Hall, 6 & 7 March 2008 3 stars 4 stars

Valery Gergiev (Photograph: Mykel Nicolaou/Keystone/EPA)These two concerts took Valery Gergiev's Mahler cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra purposefully past the half way mark and showed how the Russian conductor's approach to this music can be both revelatory and disappointing. In the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies the approach was broadly similar: driven, unsentimental, neurotic, and, at generally fast speeds, sometimes a hair-raising ride. In the warmer-hearted Fifth, this led to a performance lacking the necessary contrast between despair and consolation; in the Seventh, which has at its core a far more ambiguous set of emotions, the sense of purpose made for a far more convincing reading.

The first concert, though, started with the work of a very different symphonist, Nikolai Karetnikov. The Russian composer is linked loosely to Mahler through Schoenberg and it was the latter's influence that was apparent in the Fourth Symphony of 1963, even if, as David Matthews pointed out in his programme note, this was still an unmistakably Russian work. The orchestration, in particular, is austere and forbidding and the LSO produced a sound that was bleak but strangely beautiful, Gergiev whipping them up to some chillingly intense climaxes, the most powerful of which came in the central Scherzo.

After the desolate feel of the first half, one might have been forgiven for looking forward to Mahler's Fifth Symphony, among his most optimistic, triumphant and unambiguous works. Unfortunately, though, Gergiev didn't seem to see the work as such and, with his head buried deep in the score for most of the performance, it seemed as though he was neither terribly familiar with the piece nor, perhaps more fatally, terribly enamoured of it as a work. This made for a lack of light and shade so that the humour and sentimentality - whether one sees it as ironic or genuine - was not there to counter the sometimes rather brash playing of the darker music.

There was a problem with the balancing of the brass too – probably exacerbated by my seat being slightly to the right of centre – so that not only did the solo trumpet in the first movement often overpower the texture but the brass chorales elsewhere blared rather than glowed, losing any sense of nobility and even bordering on the grotesque. Parts of the first movement Funeral March were, undoubtedly, impressive in terms of forward momentum but many of the details fell by the wayside and there was only rarely a touch of lilt in the dance-like episodes. This was also the case in the second movement and Scherzo, only in the extended horn passages in the latter did we really get a chance to catch our breath.

The Adagietto was perhaps the least convincing of all the movements. There was nothing, in principle, wrong with the flowing tempo adopted by Gergiev and some of the playing from the strings was exquisite, but there was again a slight sense of impatience. The swells in dynamics came across more like a nervous tick than anything emotional; Mahler's music is no doubt laden with neurotic tension but here it made for an unconvincing performance which, ultimately, failed to move. The Finale, although superficially exciting at this fast tempo – the LSO strings were particularly impressive in their fugato passages – similarly left me cold. Once again, the final statement of the big brass chorale was simply too loud, unsubtle and insufficiently prepared by Gergiev. Despite the hugely enthusiastic applause, I felt at the end that we'd only heard one side of this work.

Where Gergiev's approach in the Fifth had left me disappointed, it proved far more successful in the Seventh. The symphony was preceded in the first half by Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No.1, given a performance of outstanding virtuosity even if, again, the conductor seemed more intent on preserving forward momentum than highlighting details of the score or seeking out its lyricism. The Mahler itself took a little while to get going but once underway it swept all before it. Gergiev emphasised the strong martial elements of the first movement, unleashing one fierce climax after another in a performance that demonstrated the links less between this symphony and the Schoenberg of the first half than between it and the symphonies of Shostakovich.

There wasn't much time, either, for sentimentality in the two Nachtmusik movements. The first, at a brisk tempo, also had its martial qualities emphasised while the second, similarly quicker than one might be used to, came across more than ever as a bitter parody. Perhaps the most successful movement of all was the Scherzo, Gergiev revelled in the sheer grotesquerie of the movement to produce a biting and deliciously acerbic account. The Finale brought few surprises in terms of interpretation. It was reasonably swift and it sounded as though Gergiev was little interested in exploring the famous ambiguity of this problematic movement. However, even if his approach could do nothing to hide some of Mahler's most discursive and episodic writing, the feeling of forward thrust meant that the excitement rarely flagged, even if it brought with it a few bits of inevitably scrappy ensemble. The brass were often a touch brash and unsubtle, yet where this had undermined the effect of the Fifth Symphony, it seemed to fit in well here with what was a convincing approach.

On the evidence of these two concerts, Gergiev makes few allowances to the composer. He almost, it seems, expects Mahler to fit in with his interpretative vision, rather than seeing it as the conductor's duty to adjust significantly to each work in this varied canon. The results are not necessarily consistent but, as with the Seventh Symphony here, can be compelling.

By Hugo Shirley