Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande; Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4

Barbican Hall, 12 and 13 January 2008 2 stars

GergievThere was an ecstatic response to Valery Gergiev's performance of Mahler's First Symphony on Sunday. However, it remains unclear that what the audience were responding to was really Mahler's First. Indeed, if one feature characterises Gergiev's latest instalments of his Mahler cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra, it was a refusal to commit to the equivocality by which we now commonly define Mahler's music. Without that uncertainty and ambiguity, so standard now in almost any Mahler performance, I'm not sure that what we heard wasn't simply idealistically na´ve.

Gergiev's two-night stand opened with an acceptable performance of Sibelius' Violin Concerto. The incredibly virtuosic solo part was carried off with aplomb by Leonidas Kavakos, who coaxed and nurtured some beautifully lush post-Romantic warmth from his instrument. However, Kavakos found himself underwhelmed by Gergiev's ensemble, who ranged from being too loud, through unsubtle and coarse - the opening of the second movement dropped off the stage - to plain disinterested. In fact, the apparent disinterest of the maestro was one of the main problems throughout these two concerts. When the music wasn't bold and climactic, lines were sluggish, entries were lost in the orchestral haze, and tempo and phasing felt mechanical. These were almost all due to Gergiev himself, who seemed unengaged with the excellent players around him.

The second non-Mahlerian work of these two concerts was Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande which opened the second night. Gergiev's disinterest here manifested itself not only in similar ways - the brass were too loud and dense counterpoint frequently became muggy through lack of attention - but in new ones, too. He seemed intent on rushing through the work, refusing to linger in the quiet moments after climaxes, and not allowing the echoes of the tonal era which sound in Schoenberg's early music - breaths or phrase endings, for example - the space in which to sound. This made a beautifully luscious score appear much more difficult than it needs to, and, by glossing over many of those older tonal gestures, also lifted it out of its tremendously significant historical location at the border of a new musical age.

Unfortunately, Gergiev's Mahler's Fourth Symphony was unable to arrest this downward plunge. The work sounded breathtakingly Classical, as though Gergiev thought that the careering basses in the opening movement or the ghostly tings of the scordatura violin and the glockenspiel in the second movement are unequivocally unequivocal. In fact, it was this sense of na´ve Neoclassicism - Neoclassicism which is simply New Classicism, rather than, say, a Mahlerian Post- or Meta-Classicism - which really undermined both these performances. This fact placed curious stress at the end of every phrase of the score, for it was here that Gergiev's Neoclassicism came undone. On the one hand, Mahler simply didn't allow his phrases to come to the kind of architectonic rest or balance which Gergiev was looking for in his bright, Mozartian textures; but on the other, Gergiev was determined to smooth over any sense of fracture or breakage which Mahler might have intended. Consequently, the phrases just dragged interminably on, like a conversation in which the two protagonists understood the first half of each other's sentences, but not the second.

All of this does have to be offset, of course, by some wonderful playing from the LSO. The woodwind and brass produced a beautiful pastoral soundworld throughout both symphonies, and the string waltzes were some of the most genuinely Viennese that I have heard in a long while. Laura Claycomb's soprano solo in the finale was fine, although the everpresent balance issues meant that too much of her work was lost.

Finally, the weekend closed with Mahler's First. It was here that all of the preceding issues really came to a head. Na´ve classicism strangled equivocality, lack-of-focus meant phrases washed into one another, dragging phrases suffocated any sense of line or drive, and balance and textural disinterest made contrapuntal logic or harmonic sense very hard to find. Again, the orchestra performed admirably despite all this, with some absolutely wonderful woodwind playing marking some particularly poignant vignettes amongst all that was dire. The brass would have sounded warm if anyone had told them to be quieter, while the strings were again waltzing like a naturalised Viennese. The attacca silences which Gergiev emphasised were a rare moment of phrasal clarity in the work, and huge crowd pleasers - but they sounded fairly disingenuous among such an otherwise lacklustre sense of control.

The audience shared few of these reservations, hailing Gergiev on their feet almost as soon as the work had ended. Indeed, Gergiev's Mahler was greeted with as little equivocality as possessed the performances themselves. Such a response, of course, suppresses the very philosophical ambivalence which characterises Mahler's music; but that itself is all part of the reality about which Mahler felt so equivocal.

By William Lockhart

Read recent concert reviews, including Nikolaj Znaider's performance of Korngold's Violin Concerto with the LPO and Simon Keenlyside's recital at the Wigmore Hall, here.