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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Concert Review: Mahler Marathon Features Fine Friday Fifth

The Mariinsky Orchestra continued their week-long stand at Carnegie Hall with an uplifting performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony.
Valery Gergiev, making a trademark mysterious hand gesture.
One of Mahler's most popular symphonies, the Fifth is best known for the opening funeral march, the gentle Adagietto (featured in the film Death in Venice) and the Scherzo, a central dance movement that is particularly taxing for the principal horn. It marked the start of Mahler's "middle period" and constitutes the first of an informal trio of instrumental symphonies.

Valery Gergiev set the opening Marcia Funebre at a slow, dragging tempo, as if the orchestra could not bring itself out of its grief in order to move forward. The opening four-note rhythm recalls another famous Fifth Symphony: Beethoven's. The trumpet calls, played by soloist Sergey Kryuchkov rang out in challenge. The cymbals crashed. And the low strings took hold of the deep second motif that recalls Beethoven again, this time the Eroica Symphony. 

The sonic world of the first movement collapses in the second, a terrifying cry from the heart that confronts the Mahlerian abyss. The orchestra played admirably here, tightly controlled by Mr. Gergiev and never letting the terrifying sounds of chaos spin completely out of control. The horns let out a mighty fanfare, signalling the bright dawn coming at the end of the work.

The Scherzo was an impressive exercise in horn-playing, with fine work from the principal soloist. The rich Mariinsky strings dominated the work's two trio sections, playing with bows at first and then pizzicato. This is bucolic music, which evokes Beethoven again--this time the rustic peasants of the Pastorale. Mr. Gergiev was in his element here, seeming to levitate into the air, drawing back across his body like an archer, and leading his players with those cryptic hand gestures that are impossible for the audience to decipher.

The Adagietto is one of Mahler's "greatest hits", made more so by reprehensible classical compliations that offer the aural equivalent of an ear massage. Here, it was elegantly played by harps and strings, setting the stage for  the exuberant finale.

In the massive final movement, Mr. Gergiev brought the powerful Mariinsky brass to the fore and let them run. The theme switched from section to section, pausing to flower into a giant fugue in the strings and then tossing itself around the orchestra like a beach ball.  This was exceptional music making, with orchestra and audience driven to the edge of excitement in the jubilant final chords.

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