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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.6 (1904)
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Barbican Hall, London, November 2007. DDD.
LSO LIVE LSO0661 [77:11]









Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.7 (1905)
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Barbican Hall, London, March 2008. DDD.
LSO LIVE LSO0665 [71:55]

Experience Classicsonline

Valery Gergiev seems to divide opinion more than any other conductor currently active. I’ve seen his recent performance at the Proms of the absolutely complete Sleeping Beauty described as one of the two or three highlights of the season and dismissed elsewhere as under-rehearsed and directed as if Gergiev were on auto-pilot, thinking only of his forthcoming dash to South Ossetia. There are longueurs in any complete Tchaikovsky ballet without the dancing, but I thought the criticism of the performance unfair and unfounded; I shall certainly keep my off-air recording as an adjunct to the slightly less complete ‘complete’ Covent Garden performance conducted by Mark Ermler - formerly on Conifer, currently unavailable.
The same debate has followed Gergiev’s Mahler performances at the Barbican, of which we now have two examples on disc. John Leeman described the performance of the Sixth in terms with which I thoroughly agree; rather than paraphrase him, I refer you to his Musicweb ‘Seen and Heard’ review of the Gateshead concert given the day before this Barbican recording. I wasn’t at either concert, but I heard the Radio 3 broadcast and was very impressed, finding Gergiev’s approach very similar to the one which I have come to regard as my benchmark for this work, a live performance by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell; formerly on Sony Essential Classics SBK47654, this appears to have been ‘promoted’ to the higher-price Great Performances label on 88697 00813 2. Some dealers are still listing the cheaper SBK version if you hurry. Single-CD versions of the Sixth are quite rare, with most conductors following Barbirolli’s example in pacing the first movement very slowly, though Chandos even manage to squeeze a short filler, Todtenfeier, onto their Neeme Järvi recording (CHAN8956).
Szell actually gets through that first movement in under eighteen minutes, perhaps slightly stressing the allegro energico part of the direction at the expense of the ma non troppo which Mahler added, but I have always preferred that to slower versions of this movement. Judged by Szell’s standards, therefore, Gergiev’s 21:59 is comparatively leisurely: it’s closer to the tempo of most recent recordings and it now seems to me just about the right compromise for this movement. LSO Live already had a distinguished Mahler 6 in their catalogue, in the form of a 2002 performance conducted by Mariss Jansons; at 81:52 overall it’s just too long to fit onto a single CD, but the first movement at 23:01 is not markedly slower than the new Gergiev.
Like LS, I’m pleased that Gergiev, unlike Szell, places the andante moderato second – Mahler may have changed his mind about this, but that seems the more logical arrangement to me.
If Gergiev can be accused of being insensitive, it’s in the last movement, where, at 28:44, he’s even a few seconds faster than Szell. Jansons takes 30:43 for this movement, which allows the music a little more time to breathe, whereas Gergiev presses on. One advantage of pressing on is to make the transitions less awkward – if he doesn’t wholly succeed, that is at least partly Mahler’s fault – but it does mean that we seldom have a chance fully to take in the beauties of the scenery, as it were, and real beauties there are in this movement. I’m happy to sacrifice some of these for the energy which Gergiev finds here – after all, the closing section is marked allegro energico again, like the opening of the first movement. If this movement is ‘about’ anything – and I’m mindful of the Klemperer quotation in JL’s review, expressing agnosticism about the ‘meaning’ of the symphony – the hammer blows which fell the hero must have something to do with it, and these are very effectively delivered here. And, on second thoughts, there is both poetry and mystery about the opening of the Finale in this performance.
In another ‘Seen and Heard’ review, Jim Pritchard writes of the Barbican performance of the Sixth as “a reign of terror” in which the audience were “beaten into submission”. Perhaps that response was partly due to Gergiev’s physical presence, something which, of course, is absent from the CD; I really don’t hear the recording like that.
Throughout the work the LSO give everything that Gergiev asks of them and the same is true of his version of the Seventh. Here my comparison was with a Vanguard recording with the Utah Symphony Orchestra under Maurice Abravanel.
Gergiev’s timings are not very different from Abravanel’s: the difference between his 71:55 overall and Abravanel’s 78:41 mirrors the timings of individual movements. The main difference is in the quality of the LSO playing: though Abravanel was a distinguished Mahler interpreter, the Utah orchestra is no match for the LSO at their best, as they are here.
I’ve seen the opening of Gergiev’s Seventh at the live concert described in pretty uncomplimentary terms, which surprised me as I listened to the finished product. Like Mehta’s reissued version of the First and Third Symphonies which I recently reviewed (Decca Eloquence 480 1133) Gergiev’s account of this movement seemed to me to tick all the right boxes in terms of Mahler’s markings. I suppose that the reason why there is so much disagreement about performances of Mahler’s symphonies is that there are so many apparently contradictory sides to his character – he gave Nietzsche’s Nachtlied a prominent place in the Third Symphony, yet he told Alma to burn her copy of his works, for example – that no one performance can ever be ideal.
Stephen Johnson’s programme notes on the LSO web-page refute Schoenberg’s view of this symphony as harmonious, arguing that the first two movements hark back to the tragic Sixth and that the Finale looks forward to the optimism of the Eighth. Within such a view of the work, the infelicities which some find in Gergiev’s performance become instead part of an interpretation which makes a great deal of sense. Add the further statement in those notes that the whole symphony is emotionally highly charged – again, certainly a defensible point of view – and Gergiev’s performance makes even more sense. If the performance as a whole leaves more questions asked than answered, so does the work itself.
JL concluded his review of the live performance of the Sixth with the prophetic words: "No doubt there will be plans to record and market the [Gergiev] cycle in its entirety. When this happens it will deserve to be regarded as a major recording event."
What he perhaps didn’t foresee was the very mixed reception which the CDs would receive: the Sixth was Editor’s Choice in one magazine and the Seventh is Recording of the Month in another, but there has also been much adverse comment from those who find that Gergiev misses the poetry and, therefore, the point of one or both of these works. I understand what the critics are missing, but I listened several times with considerable enjoyment to these performances of both symphonies. I may well make the Seventh my version of choice.
I shan’t be getting rid of my Szell recording of the Sixth, but the Abravanel Seventh has passed its sell-by date by comparison with what Gergiev has to offer. I wouldn’t say that either CD had yet become my benchmark in the same way that Kubelík’s First, Szell’s Fourth and Bernstein’s DG Fifth certainly are – only time will tell. With a recording of a mainstream symphony, one can be pretty sure very quickly whether one likes the interpretation or not. Szell’s version of the Fourth immediately had that effect on me when I first heard it long ago on CBS Classics, but Gergiev’s Sixth and Seventh are still to a certain extent in my pending tray. It took me nearly forty years to decide finally that I preferred Klemperer’s Mahler Second to Bruno Walter’s and I haven’t got another forty left.
I’ve been slightly dismissive of Barbirolli’s Sixth, so let me make amends by recommending his version of the Ninth, another recording which struck me as right from the first time I heard it (EMI Great Recordings 5 67925 2). And, as much for Janet Baker’s contribution as Barbirolli’s, Kindertotenlieder, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Rückert Lieder on EMI GROC 5 66910 2.
Being impatient to hear these Gergiev performances and make up my own mind in the light of such a degree of disagreement, I downloaded both symphonies from eMusic. The Seventh is certainly more than acceptable – three movements at 192kbps, the last two at 224k – but I was less happy with their version of the Sixth, at bit-rates ranging from 176k to 256k. The Finale in particular makes severe demands on any recording medium and here I thought eMusic’s mp3 download slightly too thin. LSO Live have cut the applause – a mistake I feel – and the ending sounds abrupt at eMusic’s fairly low bit-rate. I usually find 192k perfectly adequate but here even 224k didn’t seem quite up to it.
I also sampled the 320kbps version of the Sixth from Chandos’s and was much happier with this version all round: I’d still like a little more reverberation at the end, or, better still, the applause, as on the Szell recording, but the fuller 320k sound reduces the abruptness. The eMusic versions are incredibly inexpensive – four tracks for the Sixth works out at less than £1 and the Seventh comes out at £1.20 on the 50-tracks-per-month programme, but I think the Chandos version of the Sixth is very definitely worth the extra.
Downloading doesn’t, of course, bring the booklet of notes but the programme notes for the LSO performances are available on their web-site. More seriously for SACD aficionados, of course, the downloads come in stereo only – and mp3 stereo at that, not lossless wma or flac. Whichever way you obtain these recordings is not going to cost a fortune, since the CDs are competitively priced. Mahlerians and budding Mahlerians should certainly give them a try.
Brian Wilson


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