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Mahler Festival Leipzig: Gergiev - LSO - First Symphony

The Leipzig Mahler Festival is not just a musical success, it also seems to be working out quite nicely economically for the Gewandhaus, which organizes and hosts this 14-day Mahler-hoopla. Even so, the 1900-seat large, modern hall[1] showed a surprising amount of empty seats, every night. That the first sold out night would feature the artistic nadir might be considered ironic.

Name recognition is a better draw than insider tips, naturally, and so it wasn’t the BRSO and Yannick Nezét-Séguin (still largely unknown among regular concert-going folk in Europe) that played to a sold out house, but Valery Gergiev (a house hold name everywhere) and the famous Symphony Orchestra from London that had droves of people hold up rickety signs with “Ticket sought” drawn on them in their hopeful hands on the plaza before the Gewandhaus Hall.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.5,
Gergiev / LSO
LSO Live

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.1,
O.Suitner / Staatkapelle Dresden
Berlin Classics/Eterna

My feelings approaching the concert were less enthusiastic. I know from my last visit that the LSO can achieve wonderful things, even in Mahler and with Gergiev (their concert and subsequent recording of Mahler’s Fifth was and is very successful; their Romeo & Juliet terrific)… but by and large I found the combination lacking… including most of the rest of their Mahler cycle. Working of exhaust-fumes, which is what being conducted by Gergiev seems to involve more often than not, isn’t always enough for great music-making.

The First Symphony and the Adagio from the Tenth as Mahler-stocking-stuffer were on the program. Would the Adagio in isolation get the additional attention that might lift it above the level of intensity the same movement might pervade as part of the entire Tenth? Certainly the Totenfeier under Luisi from earlier that day seemed to suggest the possibility. The answer, in the negative, was fairly clear, fairly soon. Episodic, meager, slow, with beautiful but sadly disconnected transitions, messy, non-committal as if hurriedly brushed aside: the whole Adagio was a big misunderstanding; a throw-away, a waste of time and energy.

Mahler’s First Symphony was better of course, but not necessarily good. The opening pedal point, the third in succession of famous toneless, hovering Ur-openings (Beethoven’s Ninth, Rheingold), was steady and notable for its restraint in the strings. The first outbursts were a little stiff at the hip, and—true for the entire work—with very little Ländler-lilt. Among the rare highlights were the impressively unisono Frère Jacques (played by the basses in tutti with just the right amount of dread) and the shrill frenzy in the fourth movement that recalled the shrieks from the 10th Symphony. But the brass was particularly sallow and mishap-prone, the brass chorale in the finale rushed, and the louder it got the emptier it seemed, just as in the (hollow) relentlessness of the finale of the first movement. The majority of the audience, of a notably different makeup than on the nights before (the See-And-Be-Seen crowd was out in full force), would probably have disagreed with that assessment: The standing ovations were instant and lasting. It went to show, if nothing else, that loud does equal impressive, and that composers and conductors alike know how to win a race on the homestretch.

[1] Like so many halls in the late 70s or early 80s very clearly based on Hans Scharoun’s Berliner Philharmonie, in this case also with excellent acoustics.