Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Symphony Orchestra @ Barbican Hall, London

22 November 2007

A capacity crowd turned out to hear this performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

Before was a performance of Tishchenko’s Cello Concerto No. 1, orchestrated by Shostakovich, a 25 minute work in one movement dating from 1963.

The 24 year old Tishchenko, a pupil of Shostakovich at the time, originally scored the concerto for an unusual ensemble of nine woodwinds, eight brass, harmonium and percussion.

The concerto was later rescored by Shostakovich, with strings replacing brass, and presented to Tishchenko as a 30th birthday present. Whatever Tishchenko may have thought of Shostakovich’s gift, the outcome is an interesting and haunting piece. The opening monologue for solo cello, briefly reminiscent of Bloch’s Schelomo, lasts almost five minutes before the rest of the orchestra is heard. As the work progresses, there are episodes of gloomy cello musings, galloping allegros and mysterious woodwind chords before the music finally fades into silence. Tonight’s soloist, Tim Hugh, also the Principal Cellist of the London Symphony Orchestra, made a compelling case for the concerto to be heard more often. Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra provided sensitive accompaniment, the writing for strings benefiting from the use of antiphonal violins.

Mahler’s instruction for the opening movement of his Sixth Symphony is Allegro energico, ma non troppo (brisk and energetic, but not too much). Like many conductors, Gergiev discounted the ma non troppo qualification with the result that the opening was a little too fast, the ‘Alma’ theme arriving slightly sooner than is ideal. The development section, with its cowbells evoking alpine meadows, brought a welcome relaxation of tempo, with a particularly beautiful duet between first violin and solo horn. However, the recapitulation brought more problems, with Gergiev interpreting the score’s making of Sehr energisch! (more energy) to mean fast tempi and loud playing. The result sounded brash, robbing the music of much of its inner power, though the fast tempo did help bring forth an exhilarating coda.

There is an ongoing debate about whether the first movement should be followed by the Andante or the Scherzo. Whatever the merits of each approach, Mahler himself conducted the work with the Andante second and the Scherzo third, and this is the sequence which Gergiev adopted. The performance of the former was relatively straightforward, with exceptional playing from the solo horn. The second half of the movement was played at a relatively fast tempo, contrary to Mahler’s instructions, but Gergiev managed to make it work, and the sublime coda benefited from some exquisite orchestral playing. By contrast, the Scherzo was less successful, with an overly driven approach to the tramping march rhythms and a lack of poetry in the skipping trio sections. Gergiev managed to secure a suitably Mahlerian sound world from the orchestra, the brass sounding particularly sardonic, but the dynamics rarely seemed to go below mezzo forte and the movement as a whole was insufficiently subtle or stirring.

The long finale, one of the great movements of symphonic literature, to a large degree reflected the strengths and weakness of Gergiev’s approach in the earlier movements. The opening section, for example, was intensely atmospheric, the build up to the hammer blows brought white hot intensity, and the music’s interludes of radiance and heartbreak were strongly felt. At times, however, the symphonic flow was wrongfooted by some odd tempi, and the music sometimes sounded overly strident, notably during the allegro energico which occurs after the cowbells have been heard for the last time.

Throughout the finale, it has to be said, Gergiev brought forth playing of great energy and commitment from the LSO, with notable solo contributions during the many concertante sections. Despite moments of brilliance, however, the performance of the symphony was ultimately unsatisfying, Gergiev’s genius as a conductor undermined by his choices as an interpreter. With only two symphonies of the cycle heard so far, it is still too early to make any judgements about Gergiev’s Mahler as a whole. The next two symphonies, numbers One and Four, will be performed in the Barbican in January 2008.

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