Gergiev’s Bifurcated Mahler

by Sedgwick Clark

Gustav Mahler was born in 1860 and died in 1911, allowing New Yorkers to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth and the centennial of his death with a pair of symphony cycles just two seasons apart. Neither satisfied.

Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez shared the first cycle, leading the Berlin Staatskapelle in May 2009 at Carnegie Hall. I skipped Danny Come Lately’s Mahler and found the Frenchman’s performances precise but little more. I have undimmed memories of strong Boulez performances of the Third, Sixth, and Eighth with the New York Philharmonic while he was music director in the 1970s, but his efforts this time around seemed aimed at keeping a vastly inferior orchestra together.

Valery Gergiev’s Mahler cycle this season was promising to one who heard the superb Mahler Sixth he gave with the New York Philharmonic in 1998, no less memorable than the live-concert performances I heard by Boulez/NYP (1972), Abbado/NYP (1979), Tennstedt/NYP (1986), and Bernstein/VPO (1988). Interestingly, Gergiev split the cycle between the two orchestras of which he is music director: In October he brought his Mariinsky Orchestra to Carnegie Hall (10/17-24) and in February his London Symphony Orchestra to Avery Fisher Hall (2/23-27).

But disappointment set in immediately with the Mariinsky’s shapeless Sixth Symphony. Moments like his perfectly judged transition to the Allegro moderato in the opening pages of the finale would be offset by his trivializing scamper through the rute episode at rehearsal number 134, after the first hammer blow, which Mahler marks “Powerful, but somewhat measured (completely unnoticeably holding back).” Moreover, Gergiev breezed through the finale’s devastating coda with a shocking lack of conviction. Unlike the Philharmonic performance of 13 years before, he reversed the 1963 Mahler-Gesellschaft revised Critical Edition’s order of the middle movements so that the Andante moderato preceded the Scherzo. I won’t go into the lengthy explanation here. Suffice it to say that Mahler himself performed it both ways and died before he could settle the matter definitively. Scherzo-Andante makes stronger emotional sense to me.

The Second Symphony (“Resurrection”) was also compromised by wayward tempos, often lacking breadth at such crucial moments as the buildup to the mighty choral “Aufersteh’n” toward the end. Felicitous solos by the concertmaster and expressive singing by mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina and soprano Anastasia Kalagina (both rightly placed in back with the chorus) aside, the Mariinsky’s ensemble was rarely truly precise, the boys’ chorus lacked sass, and the offstage horns, placed offstage right, were far too loud. In the early 1980s, John Nelson and the Indianapolis Symphony in the “Resurrection” and Julius Rudel and the Buffalo Philharmonic in Mahler’s early cantata Das Klagende Lied placed the offstage instruments way up outside Carnegie’s balcony, and the effect was magical.

In an outrageous feat of Gergievian brinksmanship, the next evening he followed the “Resurrection” with the choral Eighth—the “Symphony of a Thousand.” While never coming close to the finest concert performance I ever heard—by Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic at Carnegie in 2000—the Russian conductor’s sheer control was mightily impressive. Part I went in one huge sweep, propulsive and dramatic, and Part II hung together as well as this episodic version of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust ever does. Three of the eight vocalists, in particular, stood out: the appealing soprano of Anastasia Kalagina (Una poenitentium), and the leather-lunged baritone Alexei Markov (Pater ecstaticus) and bass Evgeny Nikitin (Pater profundus).

Gergiev proved he was capable of great Mahler the next day with a Fifth Symphony that recalled the first Solti/Chicago (1970), Comissiona/Baltimore (1975), and Bernstein/Vienna (1989) performances in Carnegie. For once the Mariinsky’s playing had the security of adequate rehearsal time and conducting that bespoke thorough identification with the score. At one point in the second movement the frantic turbulence dies down, leaving a lonely cello line to lament expressively. “Even if the rest of his Mahler is a disaster,” I scrawled in the program, “his shaping of the cellos on page 70 is worth the entire cycle.” No less masterfully conducted and paced was the climax of the movement, in keeping with the entire performance. The 70-minute symphony was given on a Friday morning to a largely student—and very attentive—audience.

The Mariinsky musicians got a well-deserved rest on Saturday (10/23) while Gergiev was leading a stunningly well-played Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera.

Gergiev was rehearsing the Mariinsky until the house opened on Sunday afternoon, which didn’t bode well for the Orchestra’s concluding Mahler performances of the Fourth and First Symphonies, and indeed both were disappointing. Pianissimos were rarely quiet, slides in the strings were non-existent (a deficit throughout the Mariinsky performances), and the offstage brass at the beginning of the First were neither “in the distance” nor evocative.

Unlike the Mariinsky, the London Symphony Orchestra’s credentials as a Mahler orchestra are distinguished and long-standing. It came as a shock, therefore, that the first of its performances, of the Seventh Symphony, was ghastly—so unremittingly ugly in sonority as if the LSO or its conductor had never coped with Fisher Hall’s often harsh acoustics. The brass and high woodwinds sheared your ears off, with the strings consistently overbalanced. Stop-go-stop-go went the first movement. The two Nachtmusik movements were devoid of charm, nostalgia, and warmth. The hare-brained finale never cohered. Only the central Scherzo, with its teeth-chattering triplets, queasy portamentos, and bump-in-the-night percussive effects, succeeded in capturing the movement’s appropriate grotesquerie.

The LSO seemed a different orchestra two days later in the Third Symphony—comparatively full-toned and warmly balanced, with brass that made their point without overwhelming the strings. After the Seventh, I was relieved that for most of the piece Gergiev seemed inspired by the Third’s paean to Nature. This is the symphony about which Mahler told his visiting friend Bruno Walter, who was admiring the surrounding mountains, “No need to look. I have composed all this already!” The varied sections of the 34-minute opening movement marched ahead exuberantly. The middle movements went well, including an immaculately played posthorn solo, again compromised severely by its placement just offstage. Gergiev chose a moderate tempo for the slow finale that he sustained well until the last page, which Mahler indicates “Not with crude force! Richly full, noble tone.” At this point Gergiev lost all conviction and doubled the tempo, with brass blatting and timpani pounding with crude force, negating all positive feelings that had come before.

In the final concert of the cycle, Gergiev turned in a decent performance of the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony and a brisk reading of Mahler’s last completed work, the Ninth. Most impressive in the latter was the savage Rondo-Burleske, an effective but skin-deep effort that Mahler wrote to prove to his critics that he too could write counterpoint. There was a good deal of clipping the music’s full note values at crucial moments and speeding up unnecessarily. And in the section prior to the finale’s climax, which Mahler marks Stets sehr gehalten (“still holding back”), he doubled the tempo, vitiating the impact of the climax.

For readers who didn’t share my letdown, Gergiev has recorded the Mahler cycle with the LSO on the orchestra’s own label.  

Walking the Dogs

I was walking our three Bichon Frises the other evening, and a woman and her husband, both middle-aged, approach and she exclaims, “How beautiful! Are those Bichon Freeze?” I assent and she continues to extol their virtues. “They don’t shed, do they?” she asks (more a statement). “No,” I answer. “Well, I want a Pomeranian,” she says. “Do they shed?” I ask. “Yes. My husband will be very upset.” “Then why would you get one?” I ask. “Because I want it,” she huffs. I turn to the husband, who stands there mute, smiling, and I say, “You had better have a serious talk with her tonight.” She frowns at me and says, “Well, I’m getting one!” and marches off with the husband in tow.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

3/19 Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo; Gábor Bretz, bass. Ligeti: Concert Românesc. Haydn: Symphony No. 7 (Le Midi). Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle.

3/21 Metropolitan Opera. Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades. Andris Nelsons, cond.; Karita Mattila, Dolora Zajick, Vladimir Galouzine, Peter Mattei.

3/23 Zankel Hall. Midori, violin; Charles Abramovic, piano. Works by Huw Watkins, Toshio Hosokawa, James MacMillan, John Adams.

3/24 Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen; Olli Mustonen, piano. Haydn: Symphony No. 8 (Le Soir). Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 1; Miraculous Mandarin Suite; Ligeti: Clocks and Clouds.

3/25 Alice Tully Hall. Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Mahler: Piano Quartet in A minor. Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1; Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 1; Bartók: Piano Quintet.

3/26 Carnegie Hall. Toronto Symphony/Peter Oundjian; Itzhak Perlman, violin. Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1. John Estacio: Frenergy. Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4.

3/27 Alice Tully Hall. Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Belcea Quartet. Mozart: Quartet in B-flat, K. 589. Turnage: new work (NY premiere). Beethoven: Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130, with Grosse Fuge, Op. 133.

3/31 Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/Michael Tilson Thomas; Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin. Prokofiev: American Overture. Gubaidulina: In Tempus Praesens (Violin Concerto). Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2 (Little Russian).

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