Few concert series in recent times have so divided the critics as Valery Gergiev's ongoing Mahler Symphony Cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra. It's a textbook case of how a listener's preconceptions about a work's supposed meaning can make it difficult to accept a different viewpoint. Mahler's symphonies are such staples of the repertoire, and interpretations of the pieces by German musicians in particular so prominent, that it was perhaps inevitable that Gergiev's very individual viewpoint would upset many.
However, I must say that this account of the First Symphony is almost wholly persuasive. Gergiev paints Mahler in a more tense, disruptive light than we're perhaps accustomed too – very little Viennese beauty here – but for me, it makes sense to think of the composer as a revolutionary rather than an overblown late Romantic. As Stephen Johnson says in his brief but insightful liner notes, the twenty-four-year-old Mahler's First Symphony was shocking in its day: the ‘Titan' Symphony's possible ‘programme' (inspired by Johann Paul Richter's novel) comes through in a general depiction of an ‘obsessive, almost recklessly passionate idealist'. Obsession and recklessness seem to be the guiding lights of Gergiev's reading, but although the sheen we might expect from a Mahler performance has been stripped away, there's still an undeniable beauty here.
The primeval atmosphere of the opening of the first movement has rarely been so freshly delivered. The timpani and woodwind seem almost disjointed from the texture, giving the music an eeriness not always captured elsewhere, and even the unavoidable pastoral flavours have a dark edge rather than an overly lyrical feeling. Gergiev never sentimentalises, bringing out the staccati and accents with notable vigour.
This is especially apparent in the second movement, whose use of classicism has rarely seemed less twee to me. Gergiev seems to want to remind us that this is an earthy Ländler not a waltz, and everything about the articulation is demonstrative and deliberate. The vibrato is never overdone, so notes aren't held on for a lush eternity, and there's a heavy accentuation of the solo lines.
In the third movement, Gergiev's control of the tempo again shows a purpose of intent. He neither makes it a slow movement nor drives it hard for the sake of excitement. Instead, its sardonic character becomes part of the wider narrative. Dissonances are dwelt upon; isolated accents are brought out more than I've ever heard them before; and the solo bassoon is exceptional in its sensuous depiction of Death.
All hell breaks loose at the start of the fourth movement; no ambiguity of meaning here. Frenzied strings, strident brass and an especial prominence of violent timpani blasts set the character for what's to come. LSO Live's engineers have come into their own here, somehow giving full rein to the velocity of sound made by the LSO at the top of their game.
If Gergiev does not quite succeed in touching the heart with this recording, it's perhaps because he believes that the heart of the symphony is about something other than romance. Either way, although this may not become my absolute favourite account of the work, it isn't boring for a second and is well worth investing in.
Valery Gergiev's new recording of Mahler's First Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra is out this week on LSO Live. The label's previous release, Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini, came out in April 2008. Click here for our review.
Previous reviews of Valery Gergiev's Mahler Cycle with the LSO:
Mahler 6 on LSO Live
Mahler 1 and 4 (concert review)
Mahler 2 (concert review)
Mahler 5 and 7 (concert review)
Mahler 6 (concert review)