Gergievs Mahler has a history of polarizing opinion, and that divisive quality seemed apparent in Wednesday nights rendering of the composers Ninth Symphony, which was paired with Shostakovichs Second Cello Concerto.
The Shostakovich is not an easy work. It presents a wrought kind of pessimism, utterly personal in its expression but with glimpses of self-conscious clarity. The climax of the second movement (which simultaneously marks the opening to the third) sounds like some terrible, halting fanfare, while the somewhat demented, circus-like buildup in the finale so well executed here provides one of those necessary moments of ironic lucidity.
Gergiev may have been concentrating more on what was to come in the second half, but soloist Mario Brunello took full advantage of stamping his authority on this work. His playing for the most part was nuanced, personal and fresh in its interpretation, barring the slight problems with intonation near the outset. Ultimately, it was his presence that made this work more accessible.
Such an inward-looking work as the Shostakovich is perhaps an appropriate pairing for Mahlers last completed symphony. Both works address the issue of mortality, and as is common with later styles in many composers oeuvres, both works seem vulnerable to a sense of meandering hesitancy. As Rose Subotnik once put it, rather than marrying subjectivity with convention, late style presents instead the remains of synthesis, the vestige of an individual human subject sorely aware of the wholeness, and consequently the survival, that has eluded it forever. But there are moments in the Mahler particularly in the second and third movements that confess flashes of cogent brilliance. I preferred the third movement in Gergievs rendering, which displayed some electrically incisive playing and, moreover, a wonderfully palpable sense of turmoil and drama.
Indeed, following the rather wearisome, but on the whole, well-managed first movement, it suddenly felt as if this symphony was slowly waking and stretching its giant frame, only to subside again into the finale. This was broad, emotive, fresh and rarely (if at all) cumbersome in tone: the attack that Gergiev lends his forces in the earlier movements is dissipated, and finally it is the strings that come to the fore. The very end, with its wilting phrases and completely mesmerizing sustained lines was handled superbly.
This was clearly not a performance for everyone, however. The compelling silence that followed the last note of the Mahler was broken, eventually, by a man four rows ahead of me who clapped three times, got up and left while shaking his ahead. Tom Service recently complained about a man shouting bravi in the silence following the end of Rattles and the Philharmonias Mahler Three; no doubt this would have sent him into paroxysms. This performance did boast real substance, however. True, there were moments that werent particularly inspiring (Im thinking of the first movement), but perhaps that should not be the be all and end all of such a work. All credit to Gergiev and the LSO for crafting a genuinely felt performance, with a poignant sense of tender resignation.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk