The Sixth Symphony of Gustav Mahler is, like many of his other works, charged with dialectical tension. This tension arises from the clashes of past and present, order and disorder, and progress and disintegration that the composer carves into his musical material. Much of the force of Mahler's music issues, in fact, from these aesthetic conflicts. It is music haunted by the past and its relation to the emerging modernist consciousness. If it must ultimately be described as a music of failure and of irresolution, then this failure should be understood in terms of the productive fragmentation that so much of the best modernist art aims at.
The sixth symphony, though often seen as one of its composer's least ambiguous works on account of its 'tragic' valediction, can be understood in the same conflicted terms. Its classical four movement design and its carefully weighted internal structures, for example, are subverted and occluded by the tendency we find throughout towards ironic and ambiguous semantics. The symphony never settles into the classical space that its design and its formal architecture seem to mark out for it. The shards of teleology that the developmental character of the music throws up are never heard without quotation marks. It is thus the task of the conductor and of the orchestra to bring out these aesthetic details, to suggest disintegration just as they maintain forward momentum, if they are to do justice to the interstitial spirit of the work.
Valery Gergiev, whose complete Barbican Mahler cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra commenced last November with a performance of this symphony and now commences digitally with a CD release of the same, is as good a candidate as any to make good on these proposals, whilst at the same time adding new emphases and details of his own. Gergiev's expert readings of the symphonies of Shostakovich, to whom the alienation and irony found in Mahler were after all so important, promised much for this new disc. And this promise can largely said to have been fulfilled in this exciting and precipitous interpretation.
The performance finds the conductor committed to seeing the work in terms of a high drama that nevertheless finds room for nuance and for space. He is fortunate to have at his disposal an orchestra in steely and virtuosic form. One always expects the LSO to produce a capable and confident performance, especially in repertoire as central as this, but they exceed expectations here. The players move through the many moods of this most inconstant of symphonies with conviction and with poise. From the bullish strings and percussion of the opening, to the fluid and delicate phrasing of the solo horn in the slow movement and the impetuous brass of the scherzo, right up to the fragmented and dizzying counterpoint of the climactic strains of the finale, the ensemble consistently maintains the highest standard of music making. Their achievement is crowned by the sense we continuously get of their keen awareness of both the simultaneity and the succession of their music; they never let importance of the individual lines compromise their collective purpose. Gergiev ensures that a tense and determined forward momentum always defines this purpose. If anything it is the decisiveness of this momentum that compromises the performance at certain points, even if the music's general sense of dread is often made more desperate and more thrilling by this conceit.
Nowhere is the double-edged sword of this interpretation more obvious than in the stentorian first movement. At 21'50, Gergiev's performance of this movement clocks in at about three minutes faster than the average length, and a full minute faster than even Abbado and the Berlin Phil's fleet feet managed. The expedited character is balanced nicely with some arresting passages in the development section where the splayed and decaying textures are met with a dissipated momentum, but on the whole the performance speeds through the lurid march material as if it were an encroaching terror. As I have said, this works well in so far as the dramatic tension of the music is arrestingly foregrounded. One can't help but feel however that the overt decisiveness of the performance compromises the ambiguity so important to Mahler. Gergiev certainly achieves anxiety and unrest, but it is seldom in this movement that he manages to suggest an unresolved aesthetics. That will come later.
What he does achieve, however, is a clear articulation of the unrelentingly developmental character of the movement. Gergiev imbues the quasi-repetition of the exposition, for example, with an entirely new spirit and energy that does much to compensate for his initial lack of ambiguity. It is no surprise also that it is in the recapitulation that Gergiev, with his speed and his attention to productive motion, impresses the most. The final crowning appearance of the secondary theme and its triplet motif, now at an astonishing speed, manages to go so far into decisiveness that one is left with the feeling that Gergiev finally approaches the realm of ironic parody. The music is there so precipitous, and so neurotically sure of itself, that the listener is left certain, in fact, of its absurdity.
Gergiev copes well with the clashing metres, both real (3/4 and 4/4) and artificial (false accentuation that deludes the sense of a downbeat), of the Scherzo, which he places third. This movement sounds more than ever here like a pantomime annotation of the opening of the work. The architectonic logic of the performance is served well by the emphatic motion that Gergiev carries over from the first movement, even if that motion is at times appropriately clumsy and indecisive. The concluding pages of the Scherzo adumbrate the jumbled polyphony of the finale, and the performers show themselves to be keenly aware of this by reaching forward to the frenzy that will soon follow in the ordered muddle of their Scherzo.
The interpretation is at its strongest in the second and fourth movements. The slow movement, with its yearning suspensions and its tendency towards stillness, can be seen to be intimate with its famous counterpart in Mahler's Fifth Symphony, but it has more notes of uncertainty and of tumult and deserves recognition thus on its own terms. Gergiev and the LSO's performance is a tour de force. Leaving behind the certainty and the pace of the first movement, the conductor manages skilfully to create a delicate communication between movement and repose. Music's tendency towards silence is carefully exposed here, with the inner ear of the listener fighting a constant battle between the profundities of sound, and of silence, that are on display. The intense lament, and then surge, of this movement meets a unique response in Gergiev's poignant interpretation.
The disc comes into its own in the commotion of the finale. In the frenzy contained within, the conductor and orchestra strike just the right notes of friction and of indecision. There is a real material struggle evoked here, with the mad symphonic discourse leading into a wild valediction that seems to look forward to the unsynthesised plurality and caprice of Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony. No other composer before Mahler had achieved such an enthralling chaos of motion that is yet teetering on the brink of collapse, and of parody. Gergiev, who again and again carefully details the contours and minutiae of his crescendos so as to maintain the sense of fragmenting accumulation, handles the extended climaxes of the last ten minutes or so with almost unmatchable sensitivity. The orchestra deserves high praise too; they veer between snatched reminiscences and discrete and total disintegration with utmost skill and focus. The performance finally concludes with just the right note of mancado glamour and decay, before the final decisive chord of desolation.