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Mahler Symphony No.7
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/ Riccardo Chailly Barbican Hall, London March 10, 2006

Recently moved from Amsterdam, where the Concertgebouw's Mahler tradition goes right back to Mengelberg, Riccardo Chailly brought his venerable Leipzig orchestra to London for just one concert and one work.

Moods count for a lot in music criticism, and we found ourselves admiring the achievement of excellence in preparation and performance by all departments of the huge Gewandhaus Orchestra, the strings based on ten double-basses, which we rarely see. Yet we remained strangely uninvolved and unmoved as this polyglot five movement work progressed; and positively alienated by the noisy overlong rondo finale, which thumped the tub too much.

It can be hard for non-specialists to be equally knowledgeable about all genres (in the two previous days we had covered a fine contemporary piano recital and a superb vocal consort in medieval liturgical music). So I prefer today to defer to two colleagues who know their Mahler 7 better than I do, whose reviews exemplify the fragility of expertise and make me wish for the return of the SBC's feature in which contrasting critical opinions were printed alongside each other:

Music Web's Seen & Heard: an unashamedly original reading which showed why Schoenberg hailed Mahler as a modernist, pushing the limits of tonality - - the overall effect here was of powerful forward movement - - moved energetically thanks to inspired and spirited playing- - Chailly and the Leipzigers emphasise is its sheer vitality and life force and this was a performance to challenge complacency and received wisdom. With Chailly’s imagination and enthusiasm, this partnership may prove very creative indeed.

Classical Source: - - Chailly semaphored, sign-posted and drew graphic attention to every note, colour, nuance and quirk of scoring - - but there was no substance behind such objective revealing, save as a lecture on Mahler’s orchestration. - - the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra sounded a shadow of its former self - - Chailly’s domination and his micro-managing of every single event allowed little room for individual input other than the musicians acting as faithful servants. - - if Chailly’s obsessive if suffocating attention to detail, every note scrubbed clean, was initially interesting, by halfway through the first movement this clinical approach had sunk the crucial forward flow that this music needs - - rarely has a conductor dominated to such an extent, and applied so much, but with such diminishing returns.

© Peter Grahame Woolf