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A very decidedly individual view of Mahler 6
on 20 April 2008
What a magnificent orchestra! The LSO play like musicians possessed and at even the highest speed still manage to inflect the music with interesting phrasing. Also, the recording is pretty good for live at the Barbican. I wonder how many performances were used to splice together the music and how many extra takes were necessary? As it is, I detect a growing security with the music as the disc plays through the movements and this is what one expects from live performance: an orchestra has to warm up and settle in a performance. But it could be that different takes on different nights were used.
The huge problem for me is the fast music in the First Movement. This is almost as fast as I have ever heard it presented and the result is exciting but somehow misses something of the gravitas of the music. This is a MARCH and Mahler marked it "Allegro energico, ma non troppo - Heftig aber markig" which translates as "Energetically lively, BUT NOT TOO MUCH - Heavy but powerful" (my emphasis). Play it at the speed that Gergiev chooses and the "heavy power" becomes hectoring and indeed, during the recapitulation at 18.37 and following, frantic and hysterical. The "nocturnal" cow-bell passage from 11.10 to 14.16 is, on the contrary, played with exemplary tenderness and nostalgia. For me the contrast is too much. You can get an idea of how fast the music is from comparing the following timings for the first movement. Overall this disc is the second fastest I have come across and the list is in descending order of speed:
Kubelik DGG 21.07
Gergiev LSO Live 21.59
Boulez DGG 23.06
Bernstein DGG 23.08
Eschenbach Ondine 23.34
Tennstedt HMV 23.36
Bertini HMV 24.04
Gielen Hansler 24.34
Barbirolli's famous New Philharmonia account would reach to over 25 minutes but the exposition repeat is left out! Conductors have to take a choice in overall interpretation between fleet anger/rage and heavy doom/threat. Just as Kubelik and Gergiev are proponents of the first approach, Gielen and Barbiroli are followers of the second. The "middle way" seems to be found by Eschenbach and Tennstedt. My own preference is that the conductor takes the "but not too much - heavy but powerful" directive seriously and so I find myself unhappy with the first movement. Play it with fire and anger and you lose out on weight and threat.
The Andante moderato movement is placed second. This is not the place to go into the arguments about the order of the movements and Mahler himself did not seem too sure. The Andante is a tender and, in Gergiev's performance, eventually an impassioned love song. There is something about the fulsomeness of the faster music when compared with the chaste fragility of the slower, that reminds me of Tchaikovski in this performance.
But the Scherzo is REAL Mahler. It starts surprisingly heavy and sinster and the Trios are very intelligently characterised. Here you will find some of the most lovely wind playing on the disc as the music becomes more and more hesitant. The final dying away into oblivion is most chilling, suggesting that even the memory of good times will die. This is by far the best movement on the disc.
The huge finale suffers again from frantic speeds, though it starts well enough: under the portentious doom-laden writing one feels the sinuous stirrings of some huge malign influence. But then the speed are just that bit too fast to register the crushing weight of the very best performances. The very end of the symphony is delivered crushingly, of course, because Gergiev is a conductor who understands drama in its more obvious forms. But I think that he miscalculates the long-term emotional patterns in the work.
At the price this is a stunningly well produced bargain, and one cannot say that it is a "wrong" interpretation. Indeed, it is perfectly valid. I just feel that a little less speed, and a little less playing up of the drama would have produced a more profound interpretation.
Gergiev is, of course, a notable interpreter of Shostakovitch, but this does not mean that he will be as good with Mahler, for all that Mahler's work influenced the great Soviet symphonist. There is a particular set of nuances that conductors who have lived with Mahler for a long time seem to have - a feeling of "rightness" which, in my opinion, I can only find fully developed in the Scherzo of this particular performance. Sir John Barbirolli said that it took him several years study of a Mahler score before he felt he could perform it - and this was not because he did not know how to conduct it technically or had difficulty in reading the music. It was all to do with entering into the emotional world of the composer. Perhaps Gergiev needs this sort of investment of time before he becomes a great Mahler conductor.
Anybody buying this for its fairly reasonable cost will not be short-changed, but my own current recommendation, though costing about three times as much, is the Ondine recording with Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra. This is a two disc set coupled with the Piano Quartet movement in A minor from 1876 on ODE1084-SD. These too are "live" performances, but the conducting is surely and centrally Mahlerian and the recorded sound, even in two channel stereo, is quite simply the best I have ever heard. This disc is available from Amazon and if you wish to see a review of it please click on "See all my reviews" and then scroll down to it. It is the disc to own.