Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Symphony Orchestra @ Barbican Hall, London

7 March 2008

Valery Gergiev’s continuing Mahler cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra tonight brought a performance of the Seventh Symphony paired with Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony.

Mahler’s symphony, completed in 1905, requires a modern symphony orchestra of over 100 players, while Schoenberg’s from a year later involves 16 players, demonstrating the rapid evolution of musical styles in early 20th century Vienna.

In addition using reduced forces, the First Chamber Symphony packs a wealth of concise thematic ideas into its 20 minute length. Individually, the orchestral players brought a romantic expressiveness to the music. Unfortunately, the work as a whole suffered from poor balancing of the instruments and unsympathetic phrasing. In particular the horns often overwhelmed the other players in such a way that their melodic and harmonic contributions were buried, making the work sound muddled and roughed-edged. It wasn’t a performance to win Schoenberg any new friends, and indeed may have lost some that he already had.

Having used a baton for Schoenberg, Gergiev reverted to his usual style of conducting with bare-hands and quivering fingers for Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. The opening Allegro con fuoco is a glorious journey from the darkness of the opening tenor horn solo (described by Mahler as “Here nature roars”) through an ecstatic lyrical section to a blazing conclusion. However, Gergiev seemed to have a different idea about how the music should be presented, which involved incredibly loud playing from the brass and cymbals and a general disregard for the dynamic indications in Mahler’s score. Despite some valiant playing from the other departments of the orchestra, the result was too often a cacophony.

The quality of the interpretation improved with the three middle movements. Nachtmusik I benefited from an animated approach, although it suffered from a lack of atmosphere both in the opening horn serenade and in the playing of the cowbells, the perfunctory clanking of which evoked thoughts of milk bottles being placed on doorsteps rather than far off Alpine pastures. Gergiev seemed alive to scherzo’s eerie themes and unstable dances, and this movement benefited from some characterful woodwind playing. Best of all was the Nachtmusik II, a romantic serenade involving a guitar and mandolin which can often sound inconsequential. Here the music was full of charm and poetry despite (or perhaps because) of Gergiev’s swift tempo.

The C major finale is considered by some to be one of Mahler’s weakest movements, but performances by conductors such as Bernstein and Abbado show how the music’s main theme is regularly interrupted by other musical episodes in order to increase the thrill of its final appearance. Gergiev’s approach, by contrast, seemed to involve playing the movement as fast and loud as possible and hoping the music’s contrasts might be forgotten. The result was occasionally exciting but the playing suffered from too many split notes in the trumpets at the beginning and a feeling of uncontrolled scramble at the end.

At the end of this very disappointing concert, a small number of people gave a standing ovation, but for me Gergiev’s conducting had made Schoenberg and Mahler, and the playing of the LSO, sound simply coarse.

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