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Thursday 3 March 2011

LSO Review: Mahler and Shostakovich

2nd March 2011
Barbican Hall
Valery Gergiev conducting the LSO with Mario Brunello, cello.

This interesting program of heavyweight material - Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto, followed by Mahler's 9th Symphony left a rather bitter taste in my mouth. Something about the entire evening was quite unsatisfactory. Not the LSO, who were as ever on very fine form indeed, and firmly remain for me the best orchestra that these shores have to offer. The concert with Previn a few weeks ago with Tim Hugh as the eponymous hero of Strauss' Don Quixote followed by Vaughan Williams' most personal symphony, the 5th, was one of the best concerts I have ever been to.

Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto is for me the finest piece of his later years, and remains my favourite work of a composer whose oeuvre contains many favourites for me (and so much that I'd gladly never hear again!). Relatively little known, and completely eclipsed in the concert hall by the histrionics of the more traditional, showier first concerto (also a masterpiece of course), the second cello concerto of 1966 is a brooding, mysterious work, but one in which Shostakovich manages to integrate his conflicting musical characters as successfully as he ever did - the agony and the ecstacy, the sublime beauty and violent coarseness, reckless irony (oh, that overused word!) and real emotional depth. Crucially there's no posing like we find with the manipulative emotional fakery of the war symphonies, and here we seem to see Shostakovich for who he is: nervous, damaged, suffering, numbed but also deeply sensitive and loving - the glimmers of hope offered by the ecstatic beauty of a few passages offering some respite from the greyness that threatens to consume all. Most importantly the music: all of the highest order and nothing feels by rote as it can sometimes feel with Shostakovich ("suffering by numbers") or just plain shoddy as is equally often the case.

This line that Shostakovich treads so well between pained grimness and aching beauty is for me his principle achievement in a century which has so many lesser examples of composers attempting a similar thing (his musical children Schnittke and Pettersson being the most famous, and most irritating examples). Though Mahler is of course the most apt comparison here the seed goes back to the 19th century with Schubert's "laughing through tears" and Wolf's depressive glimmering with Schutz and Bach distant figures in the background if only because they convincingly expressed deep pain with such beautiful music.

The soloist was Mario Brunello (who he?) apparently a Tchaikovsky competition winner when it still mattered (that is pre 1989). The basic approach was extremely mannered - long stretches of no vibrato with nothing else of note to make such an effect expressive, full glissandos between all intervals greater than a third (not tasteful portamenti - slow glissandos), all over the playing rather colourless and expressionless. It's true that at times the work inhabits a curious limbo, impassive and unfeeling - but it's the music that expresses this - nothing extra needs to be added (or taken away) - Shostakovich works best when played as a romantic rather than as a modern (because really that's what he is). Overall it was just rather subpar cello playing - the LSO cellists displaying much finer gifts both in this concert and in previous ones I've attended (notably the recent Don Quixote). The note from Brunello in the programme should have raised an eye-brow (beware the artist too eager to offer explanations of their art!) - he relates a story of how he met Rostropovich when studying the score, who offered an illustrative example in a parallel art form to discuss the work - in this case Nikolai Gogol's story "The Overcoat". Brunello then goes on a huge flight of fancy about how each aspect of the plot is illustrated in the score, an undertaking both utterly tedious and completely unnecessary. Rostropovich's suggestion would have been a spur of the moment inspiration, a sudden connection which seemed to illustrate his point at the time - another beautiful example of this being the time he compared the first note of Bloch's Schelomo to a pantomime act by Marcel Marceau which depicted an entire life in a single movement. The uninspired artist takes this at face value and tries to literally link the two, rather than see the image for it's didactic purpose. Gergiev seemed to have little grip on the score, with neither the huge arch of the first movement or the granitic episodes of the last making any long range impact - the whole thing felt bitty and unsatisfying.

So then from Shostakovich to Mahler, that other suffering genius. Mahler's problematic oeuvre suffers from the same inconsistancy as Shostakovich's although by no means to the same degree; those Mahler "fanboys" who swallow it all up with such uncritical fervency (a depressingly commonly experienced attitude - the ones who will give any and all performances of a Mahler Symphony a standing ovation) are doing the music a disservice by devaluing the true greatness of that portion of his output which really is of the first rank. For me Mahler's principal value and appeal lies in his Symphonies no.4 and no.10, almost all his lieder (above all Das Lied) and then isolated movements from the rest of the symphonies (most have considerable high points).

The supreme example of the latter is surely the first movement of the 9th symphony - maybe the most perfect single movement he ever wrote, so perfect in fact as to make the rest of the symphony seem redundant because so unnecessary (as Robin Holloway points out). The second movement and to a certain extent the third are just bad music, especially when contrasted with the first movement, a comparison which Mahler himself compels us to make. And the last movement paradigmatic of all that is good and bad in Mahler - on the one hand, the opening is about as beautiful a thing as Mahler ever wrote, superbly scored, wistful and powerful, but at the same time so overwrought and OTT! The music make all the right gestures at hyper-expressively, a reflection of his hyper-sensitive character but we are always manipulatively held at a distance and we truly never see the real man - Mahler is just as much a virtuoso of the emotions as he is a master of the orchestra. But then he can't properly consummate it, the weepily sighing death of the ending just not coming off at all; it whiffs of tackyness, already hinting at a century of composition that was to take sincere, heartfelt tackyness to heights and depths never before witnessed in music.

Although his cycle of symphonies is undoubtedly very great qua music, Mahler is not a great symphonist per se and his achievement in this very particular discipline (as distinguished from writing music for orchestra) pales when held up to the previous generation of masters (Brahms, Bruckner, even Tchaikovsky) or his successors (Sibelius, Nielsen). That perfect jewel, the "little" 4th, is the only one amongst the completed symphonies that fully convinces in the longer range (and also completely throughout), and no.10 or what we have of it, would clearly have been the best thing he ever wrote had he had time to fully complete it - again the large scale architecture always clear and completely compelling, as well as the actual fabric of the music of blazing quality and inspiration almost throughout - everything that the 9th should have been in other words.

Gergiev's account of the 9th seemed quite strange - the unholy fire that seems to drive him through the music, uncomfortably energetic, rebarbative and just too aggressive - he plays it as if it's Shostakovich! This approach is well documented in his series of recordings which might thrill minute to minute but soon become exhausting in the wrong way. The impact of the first movement was lost to some extent - everything too loud, the climaxes truly vulgar in their blaring muscularity. My attention was drawn to Mahler's scoring - always sublime and completely faultless in the chamber like quieter passages where the extraordinary contrapuntal strength of his music can be seen to best effect. But in louder passages, Mahler can often miss fatally and added volume just becomes noise, strangely lacking in true power and impact; Strauss, his contemporary and only equal from this period for sheer skill and suavity in handling of the orchestra (Debussy and others are also very great, but in a narrower range), is a world apart in approach, and when he whips the orchestra up into a stentorian frenzy (as is his wont!), he virtually never disappoints.

The problem in approach was even more acute in the second and third movements, here so aggressive as to be barbarous and hysterical rather than sentimental and parodistic. The last movement was truly gorgeous, the LSO strings sounding voluptuous and glowingly intense, with so many beautiful points of solo colour that I felt like I was drowning in silky luxuriance. But after this aural feast I left the hall feeling rather empty, that this had been some kind of show piece, a display of extremes, which, if the piece is to make any kind of effect from it's already dubious material, is truly fatal.


  1. Your assessment of Mahler is clear, though it leaves me with some questions. Why are the middle movements of the Ninth 'bad music'? One of the aspects of what is original about Mahler is the fact he welcomes many kinds of music into the symphonic fold. 'Good taste' is sometimes not what is expressively required. So to berate him for what is part of his artistic view or intention, and not a miscalculation, seems to me to be unjust and off-target. Another point: what do you dislike about the earlier symphonies?... As for Gergiev: I share your opinion. He too often is the barbarian who thinks energy and aggression are enough. I once barely survived a Mahler 6 with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, which was more of an execution than a performance.

  2. I absolutely embrace his vision - very similar to Ives' ideas - to find the universal in the vernacular, the sublime in the provincial - as Ives would have said "The fabric of existence weaves itself a whole". In Ives it's even more obvious - the fiddle and hymning tunes, march music etc. transmuted and transformed to transcendental effect (and I use his example because I find his more moving, and without the self consciousness of Mahler's mastery).

    Mahler is attempting the something similar in his Landlers and Burleskes and also achieves this (The second and third symphonies perhaps the finest completed examples of this), but ultimately the music has to be good to vindicate the approach - it's not really a question of taste (as you rightly imply, it is partly taste itself that is being explored for expressive effect. This is a very interesting category and one to which I will undoubtedly return in future blog posts). Poor music is still poor music whatever the noble message or intent - see also Bernstein's Mass, Shostakovich's 7th, Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Corigliano's AIDS symphony etc. All of these contain moments of brilliance but are ultimately moribund because the musical quality is lacking - no amount of poltical, moral, spiritual gesticulating will resurrect them. I would add that I don't find Mahler's 8th or 2nd convincing for the same reason.

    It's not that I dislike the earlier Symphonies (though at the same time I don't truly love any apart from the ones mentioned), just that I don't think they work as symphonic wholes. As I said many of them have entire movements which are good, or maybe a only few sections, but as symphonies they aren't as great as the fanboys make them out to be.

  3. (Funny - I just had to decline a free ticket to Mahler's 8th tomorrow at the Concertgebouw, due to other commitments...)

    I find it interesting that you seem to have an implicit but definite view on 1) what constitutes 'symphonic' music, 2) how it differs from 'orchestral' music, and 3) what can count as a symphonic 'whole'. These are big subjects. But I can sense a coherence in your thinking. I hope you'll be making your suppositions more explicit as your blog continues...