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CD Feature/ Valery Gergiev & LSO: "Mahler - Symphony No. 1"

img  Tobias
While audiences can never get enough of his music, performing Mahler is a dangerous endeavour for any conductor and orchestra. Because everybody nowadays has an opinion on the man, his life and his work, each interpretation will inevitably cater to the feelings of one group of listeners while deeply hurting another, clashing with systems of belief which have long outgrown the stage of mere fandom and turned into veritable dogmas and cultural fundamentalism. Valery Gergiev’s take on the first Symphony, however, has a refreshingly reduced approach on offer. Will it be able to miraculously please everyone at the same time?

Discarding the proliferating canon of facts, factoids and myths as well as psycholgical and philosophical theories, Gergiev’s Mahler is a raw block of stone composed of a single element: Sound. Sculpted into rhythmic staccatos, soft sheets of subtle harmonics, epic walls of piercing noise, filigree melodies or malleable dance patterns, it takes on various shapes and guises over the course of this disc but never looses its primeaval, elemental and transcendental character. Gergiev cares little for the composer’s personal background and approaches his oeuvre from the perspective of a naive listener: Personal perception, instead of historical reception is the key to understanding the music here.

The stunning physical effectiveness of the drastic dynamics displayed on this live recording show that he has a point. The crescendi and fortes are of a shattering, adrenalising intensity while the bronzen timbres of the LSO’s brass radiate a consoling warmth and ooze a concentrative power constantly at the brink of exploding. Textures are occasionally more important than thematic development, such as in the opening passage of the first movement, when the otherworldly hum of the strings seems to be the catalyst for the gradually awakening orchestral sections. With regards to Mahler’s love for metaphors drawn from nature, this preference of the immediately palpable over the metaphysically constructed makes sense from an interpretational stance as well.

There are plenty of exciting moments in the first three movements, enough to keep you glued to your seat at any rate. Especially the dirge-like canon offers an interesting new perspective, its characteristical Jewish folk elements appearing less as satirical here and rather as flashbacks, as lapses into distant memories and an opaque past. All of this, however, is nothing but mere preparation for the grand finale, in which Gergiev throws all motives into a bewildering maelstrom of frenzied propulsiveness, recreating the music anew from scratch and uniting even the most antithetic strands. The last minutes are nothing less than a euphorical triumph, a last scream before lapsing into silence.

Every decision in favour of one thing automatically implies negating another, of course. While the dynamitic explosiveness of the LSO and their tight and direct sound turn this recording into an overwhelming sensory experience, the dream-like qualities of Mahler’s aural imagery are slightly lost in the turbulences. The instruments seldomly merge into a deep, threedimensional canvas, opting for a transparent, analytical tone instead. Gergiev’s interpretation is not a programmatic fantasy anymore, but a very real statement of intent, which will disappoint all those who enjoyed the escapist tendencies of the work. Once again, not everyone will be pleased. With Mahler, though, that can hardly register as serious criticism.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: LSO

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