The announcement of Valery Gergiev's Mahler series with the London Symphony Orchestra over a year ago was greeted with great excitement.
The clash of two great wills – the interpreter Gergiev's and the composer Mahler's – was, several commentators anticipated, likely to set sparks flying. A performance of the Eighth Symphony a few weeks ago brought the concert series to a close and, eliciting a wide range of reactions among both the press and the concert-going public, the Russian maestro's interpretations have been never less than fascinating. Luckily, the gradual release of the symphonies on LSO Live allows us to relive the concerts and reassess, with an extra objectivity, the merits and faults of Gergiev's achievement.
Of the concerts I heard, that which included the Seventh Symphony struck me as one of the most successful. Listening to it again brings little in the way of additional revelations but reinforces the reaction I felt at the time. In this work, described on the blurb of this release as 'enigmatic' and 'Mahler's "Cinderella" symphony', the strength and single-mindedness of Gergiev's approach is admirable. He takes it by the scruff of the neck and although he might decline the opportunity to delve into some of the work's darker corners, missing some of its ambiguity, he gives it a forward momentum, especially in the famously problematic Finale, that sometimes gives the impression that this is simply the only way of interpreting the music.
I found the Scherzo – wonderfully twisted and gnarly in Gergiev's hands - the most compelling movement of this performance, yet there's a lot to be enjoyed in the other movements too. The first is shadowy and atmospheric but Gergiev whips up a storm in the martial episodes, eliciting playing of bite and drive from the LSO. In a cycle where the interpretations sometimes seemed to lack affection, it's good to hear Gergiev also willing to linger a little in the lyrical moments, the massed LSO strings producing a honeyed tone, expertly employing vibrato to communicate the underlying neurosis. The glorious episode half-way through the movement, introduced by distant fanfares and shimmering strings, is tenderly done.
The sense of impatience that many have perceived through Gergiev's Mahler is more noticeable in the two Nachtmusik movements. Although the horn call and the replies in the woodwind that open the first are nicely inflected, some might find a lack of flexibility as the movement gets underway, yet there's never that loss of forward momentum that afflicts some readings. Throughout, the solo playing of the LSO wind and brass is full of character, whether it be snarling and acerbic or sweet and sentimental, and the string tone is burnished and full when necessary. This excellent playing also distinguishes the more parodistic Nachtmusik II. Here the fast tempo more significantly precludes the light and shade that is sometimes possible but Gergiev's unwillingness to linger excessively intensifies the effect when he does and creates a feeling of straight-faced humour that, if anything, adds to the parody.
As already mentioned, the Scherzo is for once truly shadowy as marked and is the most successful movement of the symphony in Gergiev's hands – his vast experience with Shostakovich's symphonies no doubt aiding him in his quest for the movement's ambivalent heart. The Finale is performed with an objectivity that does little to answer the questions this notoriously ambiguous movement presents, but it is all executed with admirable technical skill and a purposeful sense of drive that is convincing on its own terms.
In sum, here is a recommendable performance of this difficult symphony which, at LSO Live's normal budget price and in clean, detailed sound is another addition to a fascinating – if divisive – cycle.
By Hugo Shirley