Sunday, July 26, 2009

Returning to Gergiev's Mahler

I have a friend who has done much to cultivate my awareness of the work of Valery Gergiev. This is a somewhat belated mission, since I never really appreciated the contributions he made to San Francisco Opera productions, nor was I particularly motivated to go down to Orange County when his production of Richard Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen was first unleashed on the United States. Thus, my first serious listening to one of his performances did not take place until KDFC programmed a rebroadcast of his 2007 Proms appearance at the Royal Albert Hall; and that was more than enough to pique my attention.

Shortly thereafter came the announcement that, in his capacity as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), he would conduct the complete cycle of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler during the 2007–2008 season. On this blog I referred to this project as "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 that same 2007 Proms series). Needless to say, the "carfare" to the Barbican (and St. Paul's for the eighth symphony) was more than I could manage; so I took great interest in the LSO plan to release recordings of all of these performances on their LSO Live CD label (which may have been inspired by the San Francisco Symphony releasing its recordings of the Mahler symphonies on its own label).

The LSO recording project was launched on April 8, 2008 with the release of the sixth symphony. This symphony has particular significance in San Francisco. I would agree with those who classify it as Mahler's darkest composition. The San Francisco Symphony had scheduled it for the beginning of its 2001 season. This turned out to be shortly after September 11, and Thomas made the decision that it would be appropriate to go ahead with the performances as planned. This was a time when we were all occupied with dark reflections. I thought Thomas made the right decision then, and in retrospect I still feel that way. Needless to say, the performances at the Barbican did not take place under similar shadows; but it was clear from that Proms broadcast that Gergiev was no stranger to darkness. He was not the sort that would have to rely on the coincidental context of current events to achieve his interpretive goals.

My friend was quick to share this first CD with me; and I wrote about it on August 9, almost exactly four months after the release. By that time I had read reviews of the concert itself through my RSS feeds of the arts pages of the London press, and several reviews had appeared on the page for the CD. My own initial impression was that the performance was not visceral enough, and after subsequent listenings my thoughts have not changed very much.

I know this symphony well. It was one of the first recordings released of Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and my initial thoughts about the work were shaped by that recording. This was a blood-and-guts reading that seized my attention with the first beats of its opening march and did not let go until the life had been squeezed out of that minor triad that pervaded the entire symphony. After acquiring that recording, I would go after every opportunity to hear the work in concert; so it may be that I was prepared with too much baggage to give the Gergiev recording a fair listening; but, unfortunately, we have little control over the baggage we carry.

This year my friend decided to give me a copy of the LSO Live recording of the seventh symphony as a birthday present. I greatly appreciated the gesture. I realized that it was a bit unfair to judge the entire project on the basis of the very first release, so I was glad to have the opportunity to consider another data point. Unfortunately, this was another symphony that I knew particularly well. In this case my acquaintance began the summer before I entered MIT when a distant relative, who bought a lot of recordings with no prior knowledge, decided to unload his Westminster recordings of Hermann Scherchen conducting the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (Mahler's former turf). Those recordings included the fifth and seventh symphonies, along with the first movement of the tenth. The seventh was, without a doubt, the hardest to get to know; but I persisted until it gradually became a familiar friend.

The challenge posed by the seventh symphony is that the first movement is the most problematic. While the opening gesture of the sixth is as clear as it is intense, the seventh insinuates in presence with vague rhythms and harmonies. The first theme, delivered by tenor tubas, is profoundly haunting; but it also plays out with that same restlessness that so many find frustrating when first hearing the opening prelude to Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. After that first movement, the remaining four are far clearer; and the final rondo has one of those blazes of glory that Mahler could summon so well. (When I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, I remember watching a drum and bugle corps competition being broadcast live from Franklin Field. One of the competitors adapted this movement for their entry.)

Once again, I did not consult the reviews until I had completed my first listening of the Gergiev performance. I found myself agreeing with the reviewer who characterized the beginning of the first movement as "rough and slipshod," as if Gergiev was having as much trouble getting to know this symphony as I had experienced with my first exposure to the Scherchen recording. I also agreed with the reviewer that Gergiev had recovered his footing by the final movement. However, I worry that this was a matter of playing the strategy that audience response is always based on the final gesture. Since this was a recording made from a concert performance, such a strategy would have been well motivated; but, particularly where a symphony like this one is concerned, I cannot sympathize with the assumption that audience enthusiasm at the conclusion compensates for perplexity at the beginning. Thomas conducted this work twice at Davies Symphony Hall on two successive seasons and exercised a firm hand in making sense of those opening ambiguous peregrinations. For better or worse, his strategies became part of my contextual baggage; and it is hard for me to forgive getting this particular symphony off to a weak start.

I should conclude with one comment in response to the reviewer who recommended Scherchen or Horenstein for "the historically inclined." That Scherchen recording that had played such an instrumental role in shaping my listening had a major splicing problem in that problematic first movement. This may have had to do with the fact that the long-playing version came from splicing together the sides of 78 RPM masters that were the original sources. I have not yet listened to the CD version of this recording, so I do not know if it has a similar problem. However, that defect is the primary reason why I have not tried to seek out a CD to replace this particular item in my old vinyl collection. I am definitely interested in how the BBC remastered the broadcast performance by Jascha Horenstein with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, having been particularly impressed with their release of the March 20, 1959 broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall of the eighth symphony. Hopefully, all of these sources will serve as useful preparatory material for the San Francisco Symphony Mahler 09 Festival at Davies Symphony Hall that begins on September 16 and continues through October 3.

No comments: