These two symphonies are among Mahler’s most approachable works, and combined with substantial makeweights from the same era, both programmes promised an enjoyable evening in the concert hall.
Alas, neither concert proved very illuminating or satisfying.
Saturday’s concert opened with Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Although soloist Leonidas Kavakos dealt with the concerto’s technical difficulties with aplomb, the performance as a whole lacked tension, and Gergiev’s accompaniment provided extremes of dynamics but little sense of organic development. As a result, the first movement frequently lost focus and the Adagio seemed unduly slow (although its actual length of nine minutes was not atypical for this movement). The finale brought a livelier tempo but failed to provide the necessary sense of excitement.
Gergiev’s performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was straightforward, with no untoward dynamic extremes or tempo changes. The first two movements were notable for the spirited playing of the many instrumental solos by the talented players of the LSO. The Adagio movement, cool and lucid for the most part, was capped by an exciting climax. Rather puzzlingly, the finale started with no sign of the soprano soloist, Laura Claycomb, on stage. Instead, she suddenly arrived several seconds into the movement. Her performance, in keeping with Gergiev’s overall approach, was beautifully sung but rather cool. Ultimately, while there was nothing objectionable in Gergiev’s performance of the symphony, the charm, quirkiness and wonderment of Mahler’s music was in rather short supply.
The opening work of the second evening, Schoenberg’s tone poem Pelleas und Melisande, which bridges the cusp between romanticism and expressionism, was an unusual and imaginative choice. Based on the symbolist play by Maurice Maeterlinck, the tone poem includes depictions of the love between Pelleas and Melisande, the murder of Pelleas by his brother Golaud, and the death of Melisande. Under Gergiev’s baton (and for this piece he used a baton rather than his hands) the expressionistic side of the music was emphasised, including trombone glissandi, screaming trumpets and shrieking woodwind. What was missing, however, was the countervailing sense of romanticism necessary to put the expressionist element into context. The gentle depiction of Melisande unravelling her hair, for instance, some 13 minutes into the work, was lost between a succession of ear-shattering climaxes. The overall effect was unremitting and failed to do justice to Schoenberg’s early masterpiece.
Gergiev’s performance of Mahler’s First Symphony was a more balanced conception, although not a particularly absorbing one. In the slow opening section, for example, there was a lack of expectancy, and the joyous main theme (taken from the second of Mahler’s song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) was rather rushed. Gergiev was at his best in the third movement, with its parody of the tune, Frre Jacques, although the kletzmer-style trumpet theme later on was played too loud. The finale, with its stormy, Tchaikovskian opening, started well, but Gergiev seemed to have little sympathy with the nostalgic second subject, and the conclusion of the symphony was brash rather than joyous.
It is only fair to add that a small proportion of the audience, perhaps 10%, gave a standing ovation at the end of this second concert. Those of us, however, who admire the qualities that conductors as varied as Walter, Bernstein, Kubelik and Haitink bring to Mahler’s music were left mystified by this response.