Although Valery Gergiev is a renowned and much-in-demand conductor, it is typically for his interpretations of Russian repertoire that he's most famous, aided in no small way through his twenty-year tenure as Artistic Director of the Mariinsky Theatre. If there were any doubts concerning his approach to traditional Austro-German repertoire when the LSO first announced that he was to conduct a cycle of the Mahler symphonies in 2007-08, the performance of the Sixth Symphony must surely have converted any non-believers to the cult of Gergiev.
Whilst it could be said that Mahler's Sixth Symphony most clearly illustrates the brutal grotesque passages that had such an impact on Shostakovich's symphonic style, repertoire in which Gergiev has already secured his reputation, the symphony is in the classical Viennese four-movement layout. The LSO, clearly at home with the Austro-German tradition, performed magnificently under Gergiev, almost equalling the definitive Abbado recording. The orchestra launched into the first movement with gripping attack, and the repeat of the exposition only increased the searing intent and control. Indeed, strings throbbed with unerring drive throughout the movement.
Nevertheless, the bittersweet Andante began immediately with such a sensitively phrased and meltingly beautiful melody that I would challenge anyone present not to have felt transported to the Alpine peaks. Excellent balance and empathetic solos allowed for some intimately magical moments before the swelling climax and decline to the dark threats of the Scherzo, culminating in the vast and tragic finale with its devastating hammer blows.
The enduring themes of the symphony - sharp contrasts in character, major/minor successions and intense oppositions - were succinctly presented in a dark and exhilarating performance that showed the LSO and Gergiev at their most compelling.
The first half of the concert was taken up with Tishchenko's Cello Concerto No 1. The enviable position of soloist was granted to Tim Hugh who combines his role as Principal Cellist with the LSO with an international solo career. His stature was amply demonstrated by his able performance in this difficult concerto, which exploits the full range of the cello.
Composed in a single movement, the concerto nonetheless encompasses varying emotions and textures typical of contemporary Russian composition. Written in 1963 for woodwind, brass, harmonium and percussion, it was orchestrated by Shostakovich in 1969, who exchanged the brass for strings. Not being at all familiar with the concerto I cannot make any informed comments by way of comparison of the scoring; instead, I can only offer that the Shostakovich orchestration presented at the concert was most effective and, like Shostakovich, 'it gave me nothing but benefit and pleasure'.
Read recent concert reviews, including the UK premiere of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane and Simone Young conducting the LPO in Mahler, here.