Perhaps Valery Gergiev and his World Orchestra for Peace should refrain from bringing Mahler’s works to the BBC Proms. Judging by their 2010 appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, when they mowed through the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, Mahler is not their strength. And last Sunday their interpretation of the Sixth Symphony was less a performance than an assault. Which is ironic, given the name of the ensemble, not to mention the fact that this is the first major symphony orchestra to be designated Unesco Artist for Peace.
Founded 19 years ago by the conductor Georg Solti, the WOP comprises section principals and concertmasters from leading ensembles all over the world and gives only sporadic performances. So it’s not surprising that the teamwork is not always as tight as it could be, or that the orchestra lacks a distinctive sound.
Less forgivable was the unremitting brutality with which it hacked through the sixth symphony, trampling anything resembling subtlety underfoot. This was Mahler dished up with extra ketchup and fries. The most delicate effects were inflated to grotesque proportions, the overall volume ramped up so unbearably high that the climaxes failed to register. There was no shred of love in the potentially heartbreaking Andante Moderato; no sense of shape in the outermost movements. The soloists’ contributions – particularly from the brass and woodwind – were more convincing. You certainly couldn’t accuse the musicians of apathy. These are obviously fine players in their own right, but Gergiev’s conducting left little room for manoeuvre. Mahler’s Tragic should leave you feeling battered and bruised, but not through lack of variety or imagination.
Similar problems had marred the programme’s first half, in which the orchestra had paired the European premiere of Roxanna Panufnik’s Three Paths to Peace with Richard Strauss’s symphonic fantasia fashioned from his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten. Here, however, the material was partly to blame. The symphonic fantasia scores low on musico-dramatic coherence, a shortcoming that Gergiev’s moment-to-moment approach did little to counteract. And Panufnik’s 2008 work blends Islamic, Jewish and Christian musical influences, without exploring the distinctiveness of any of them. It amounts to 12 minutes of prettified, kitsch exoticism, easily digested, and, in this case, monochromatically dispatched.