Saturday, August 9, 2008

Valery Gergiev in the Mahler Wars

Almost a year ago I wrote about Valery Gergiev's decision, as principle conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), to conduct the complete cycle of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler during the 2007–2008 season. I wrote this under the title "The Coming Mahler Wars?," since San Francisco takes considerable pride in the performances of Mahler that Michael Tilson Thomas has brought to Davies Symphony Hall (and perhaps a bit more pride in his leading the San Francisco Symphony in the seventh of these symphonies as part of the 2007 Proms series). Thomas is also "Permanent Guest Conductor" of the LSO, which has a long-standing reputation for delivering excellent Mahler performances under a rather substantial number of batons. As a result I drew heavily upon my RSS feeds from the arts pages of the London press to find out what sort of reception Gergiev's project would receive as it evolved.

Still, reading is a poor substitute for listening; and, since the "carfare" to the Barbican (and St. Paul's for the eighth symphony) was more than I could manage, I was glad to see that a recording project was also involved with this particular cycle. The recordings seem to be coming out in the same order in which the symphonies were performed, beginning with the release of the sixth on April 8. Through the good graces of one of my neighbors, I have now had a chance to listen to this recording; and, at the very least, it made me regret not being there for the performance itself. As I am reminded every time I hear Mahler in Davies, there are just too many things happening on any page of a Mahler score to be rendered with any sense of fidelity by current (or future?) recording technology. Listening to a recording of Mahler can prospectively help you hone your listening skills before attending an actual performance, and a recording like this one might retrospectively awaken the memories of those who were actually there for Gergiev's Barbican performance. However, I have to wonder whether or not the recording has done justice to any of the performances, particularly in light of the "truth in advertising" question around the series of recordings being called "LSO Live" raised by David Bryson's review on the page for this CD.

This symphony is a real stake in the ground for conductor and orchestra alike. It pulls out all the stops that regulate heart-on-sleeve emotion and was probably the primary reason why Harold Schonberg could never get beyond dismissing Mahler as one "whose neuroses made Tchaikovsky's neuroses look healthy." If that kind of emotionality is going to work at all, it has to work at a visceral level; and, while Georg Solti was often criticized for relying too much on the skills of recording technicians and editors, he recognized that, in the synthetic environment of a recording, that visceral level sometimes demanded technical assistance. When he made the move from recording Mahler with the LSO to recording with the Chicago Symphony, the sixth was one of his first projects, recorded at the Krannert Centre of the University of Illinois in March and April of 1970, right after the recording sessions for the fifth. I cannot remember which recording was actually released first, but I do remember seeing the sixth on the shelves first and buying it. I had already been hooked on Mahler, had been medium-cool about Solti's London recordings, and became a devoted follower of Solti in Chicago by virtue of the recording of the sixth. If my change of heart was a result of technical tinkering, I cannot dismiss that tinkering because of the way it refined my ability to listen to "real performances" of Mahler.

This takes us back to Gergiev. As one can tell from the reviews, there are a variety of favorable adjectives that different listeners have applied to his recording of the sixth; but "visceral" is not one of them. The problem is that I have no way of knowing whether this lack comes from his actual performance (as was suggested by some of the reviewers present at the Barbican) or from a lack of that "technical tinkering," which, when properly applied, can provide at least some compensation for not actually "being there." Either way the recording is a disappointment, which has not left me particularly curious about the subsequent releases of the first (June 10) and the seventh (due for release on August 12). On the other hand much of that disappointment may have to do with the fact that, living so close to Davies Symphony Hall, I now take those "real performances" for granted and use recordings more for "background knowledge" and less for "serious listening." Thus, I am more interested in how the recordings I have will prepare me for listing to Thomas conduct Mahler's eighth symphony for a second time at Davies this coming November than I am in documents of a season that has passed in a city I was unable to visit!

No comments: