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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Concert Review: A Little Nightmare Music

Valery Gergiev's Mahler cycle continues with a shaky Seventh.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Valery Gergiev conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's Seventh on Wednesday night.
Gustav Mahler's five-movement Seventh Symphony has struggled to find its place in the repertory since its 1908 premiere. But the "Song of the Night", (as it is known to Mahler aficionadoes) is one of his most innovative creations, a work that maintains a distinct, nocturnal atmosphere until it blazes forth in bright sunlight.

Valery Gergiev conducted the Seventh on Wednesday night, leading the London Symphony Orchestra in the first of three concerts this week at Avery Fisher Hall. The concerts mark the end of the Ossetian conductor's complete survey of the Mahler symphonies, which began in October with a five-concert stand at Carnegie Hall. However, Mr. Gergiev's interpretive choices did a tremendous disservice to the work's already shady reputation.

The Seventh opens with a solemn call for "tenor horn", (Mahler's marking) played here on a Wagner tuba (Gergiev's decision). The horn-call went off, but the movement, a night-time march, rapidly went askew. Mr. Gergiev would pick one tempo and then suddenly accelerate, moving back and forth between allegro and allegro assai. Unable to keep a steady pace, the LSO players shifted speeds at Mr. Gergiev's whim, making the music sound anarchic. Only in the coda, with its second horn call, did the orchestra (and audience) find peace.

The three central sections of the symphony consist of two nocturnes, (termed Nachtmusik by the composer) flanking a central scherzo. The first of these was sped up, from a stealthy patrol to a hurried tip-toe through the thicket. Mr. Gergiev has taken this approach to Mahler's slow movements before. It doesn't work.

The scherzo (marked schattenhaft, or "shadow-like") did not terrify. It was taken at a quick clip, and the sprung rhythms, squeaking winds and ominous rumblings failed to cohere into the stuff of nightmares. The central trio section offered some redemption, but this most difficult of Mahler movements lacked focus.

Things got better in the second Nachtmusik, some of the most profound love-music ever written by Mahler. The sense of bliss and secrecy, so central to this dark-toned symphony finally descended, as the orchestra's strings and winds got a chance in the spotlight. Accompanied by mandolin and guitar, the woodwinds sighed forth in a romantic outpouring. Here was music that Mr. Gergiev understood, but the bliss was not to last.

The final rondo is a blinding blast of brass and timpani. With broad, unblinking daylight, Mahler banishes the darkness that dominates the first four movements. He throws in quotes from Die Meistersinger, evoking an old-fashioned German-style celebration complete with Bach-style polyphonic sections. However, for this to work, the brass chorales and jogging fugato sections demand precise timing and control.

Mr. Gergiev displayed neither.

The London brass sounded enthusiastic, blowing hard but making forced, imprecise entrances that undermined the entire movement. The fanfares sounded like a drunken parade, an interpretive choice that suits the early Wunderhorn symphonies but not the Seventh. Perhaps that was Mr. Gergiev's intent: to emphasize the irony in Mahler's most sincere, naturalistic, and yes, optimistic work. Both composer and symphony deserved better.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.