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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Concert Review: Grim Sixth Opens Mariinsky's Mahler Marathon

Valery Gergiev
Photo by Joachim Ladofaged
The Mariinsky Orchestra opened its week-long residency at Carnegie Hall with Sunday's performance of Gustav Mahler's bleak Sixth Symphony. Under Valery Gergiev's leadership, the Russian orchestra barreled through the work like an out-of-control freight train. When the crash finally came in the final movement, it was as intended, a product of Gustav Mahler's design and Mr. Gergiev's expert direction.

Mahler wrote the first movement as a pounding march for low strings, brass and drums, occasionally interrupted by outbursts of a second theme written for his wife, Alma. The march acquired new urgency under Mr. Gergiev's hands, hurtling along with occasional romantic outbursts of strings and wind. The themes argued, torn between a storm of constant motion and the romantic yearning that characterized the composer's relationship with his wife, Alma. Love wins out, and the death march got a temporary reprieve.

Mr. Gergiev placed the Adagio second, in accordance with Mahler's own decision before the work's 1806 premiere. This slow movement is the pause amidst the storm and stress. The lush Mariisnsky strings moved to the fore, bathing the listener in music that evoked the composer's complex relationship with Alma. Eventually, the brass led a tremendous crescendo. As the movement built to a mighty climax, the drive toward destiny resumed.

The Scherzo is one of Mahler's grotesque creations, as a capering, deformed version of the march theme clashed repeatedly with the Trio theme, an 18th century minuet that recalled Viennese serenades. Thumping timpani and bone-rattling percussion added to the dark celebration before seeming to collapse in a heap: the sound of a marionette with its strings cut.

The finale is Mahler's darkest hour. The theme is stated in the tuba, and then struggles to rise out of the orchestra and resume the trek toward destiny. The defining moment of the Sixth came halfway through the last movement. As the theme climaxed, the percussionist stood up at the back of the stage and raised a massive wooden hammer, striking a hollow wooden box. This sickening thump stopped the music dead, as the romantic themes seemed to panic and scatter. The melody resumed, but the hammer struck twice more, effectively knocking out the symphony. The music simply died in its tracks.

Mr. Gergiev will conduct the Mariinsky Orchestra in Mahler's Resurrection Symphony on Wed. Oct. 20, the Eighth (Symphony of a Thousand) on Thu. Oct. 21, the Fifth on Oct. 22, and the First and Fourth on Oct. 24. All concerts are at Carnegie Hall. Visit the official Carnegie Hall website for further details and tickets.

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