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"Gergiev’s Mahler"
Jean Sibelius : Violin Concerto

Gustav Mahler : Symphony No 4

Leonidas Kavakos violin, Laura Claycomb, soprano, London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev.

Barbican Hall, London, 12 January 2008.

In the current Barbican Mahler series, this performance of the 4th Symphony is one of the most important because it plays a pivotal role in the overall evolution of the symphonies heard as a whole. More than perhaps any other composer, Mahler is one whose work benefits from being heard as an integrated whole, but opportunities for “cycles” like this are rare.  Seldom is it possible for one conductor to unveil his overall vision of the composer, with a single orchestra, and over a short period of time. No wonder the concert was sold out, queues for returns reaching across the hall. 

Having heard Gergiev’s Mahler from Rotterdam a decade ago, I was expecting something exciting, if unidiomatic.  But Gergiev is always unpredictable, so this flaccid, non-committal performance was a complete surprise. It revealed so few insights about the symphony itself that there’s not much point speculating what it might reveal about Gergiev’s approach to the symphonies as a whole.  Indeed, the “old” Gergiev, even in full blown excess, would be a better experience.  At least, it would have had the stamp of Gergiev’s personality – no bad thing in itself.

The concert started out promisingly enough, though.  This was a very refined reading of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Leonidas Kavakos’  playing was deeply expressive, drawing out subtle nuances of emotion, where a lesser player might simply revel in displaying sheer technical wizardry.   Gergiev was alert to the “symphonic” character of the work, emphasising how the fundamental structure flowed throughout, maintaining a good balance between soloist and orchestra.  

If only the same intelligence had carried through to the Mahler Symphony ! Of course Mahler covers the score with instructions not to rush and be restful, but as he famously said, music doesn’t exist “just in the notes”.  What makes the notes come alive in performance is a judicious understanding of how they operate, and how they interact in the creation of the whole.  In some performances, such as the recent Eschenbach/LPO at the South Bank (reviewed for Seen&Heard) the outward calm is galvanised by a kind of muscular energy that picks up on the inexorable development of themes towards the resolution, for the final movement generates a powerful centrifugal force.  Here, instead, it felt more episodic, each passage observed correctly, but to no particular purpose.

Because the finale is so important, its portent needs to be understood. 
The final song paints a vision of paradise through the eyes of an innocent.  But the protagonist is dead, transported instead to a different plane of existence, among the saints.  The quiet stillnesses aren’t there for decoration but serve a purpose.  They form a transit away from the turbulence of the world, pulling further and further away into another plane of spiritual life, where “inner calm” prevails, and the serene, confident St Ursula smiles – this, the saint who led 11000 virgins to their deaths, but also to eternal life. The stillness also represents death. For the final song to blaze in its full glory, death has to be confronted and overcome.  In this performance, we were becalmed from the start. I was surprised, because I felt that if anyone should have appreciated the grimmer aspects of this symphony, Gergiev might.   For example, Freund Hein, Death as a Fiddler, appears in the second movement in the form of the solo violin.  The scordatura tuning is utterly explicit : the instrument is supposed to cut through the cosy ambience, bringing a harsher, pungent element.  Freund Hein is the opposite image of St Ursula, so there are good reasons for highlighting this part.  The whole point is that it subverts the very tranquillity that exists around it.  Dangers lurk beneath the surface of this symphony.  That’s also why the cataclysm of sound towards the end of the third movement is crucial, and needs to grow out from a background if darkness.  It is an explosion of sound, marking the imminent arrival of the powerful finale. To use another of the medieval images which infuse this symphony, it is a Resurrection, an opening of the tomb.  It’s another stage in the transit from the repose of death to Das himmlische Leben – heavenly life, no less.

Significantly, the soloist did not appear until the final movement had actually started.  This is no small, inconsequential detail, but points to something fundamental in the conception of this performance.  The singer may not be visible, but her presence is felt musically throughout the symphony, especially in the important, transitional third movement.  Having a singer walk in part way detracts from the music – especially insensitive in the case of music as carefully constructed as this.  I didn’t understand why, particularly after the Sibelius Concerto, where soloist and orchestra were so well integrated.  Moreover it may have contributed to Claycomb’s delivery as well, because she had to start singing almost mid stride.  Perhaps if she had started singing “inwardly” beforehand, it might have been a performance of more depth and conviction.

Yet, surprisingly, I don’t regret having been to this performance at all.  It was a reminder that, in Mahler, you can’t divorce meaning from the music. It’s so intimately embedded into his music that part of the fascination is appreciating how it operates on deeper levels.  Far from being put off by Gergiev – who is a very good conductor when on message – I’m looking forward to hearing what he’ll do with the Second and especially the Eighth Symphonies, where that integration of ideas and musical expression is even more fundamental.

Anne Ozorio 

See Anne Ozorio on a recommendable CD of a reduced version Mahler 4 [Editor]

Illustration: Mahler as conductor