Gergiev’s Mahler, Barbican, London

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The photograph of Valery Gergiev on the programme cover for the London Symphony Orchestra’s Mahler cycle, which began on Monday, was presumably chosen to depict him as visceral, mysterious, magnetic. But he also looks unkempt, a man with his mind on other things, and it was these qualities that rubbed off on the Third Symphony.

The performance’s sloppiness and feeble impact cannot be blamed on the fact that, throughout Sir Colin Davis’s years as principal conductor, Mahler took up little space in the LSO’s calendar: an orchestra with such a dark, muscular sound is made for Mahler. A cycle of the nine symphonies under Davis’s charismatic successor might make sense from a marketing point of view, but given that Gergiev has no reputation in Mahler, the artistic logic of devoting every concert of his first full LSO season to this composer seems dubious, all the more so in the light of Monday’s poor showing.

Gergiev could conceivably have brought an original take to the Third Symphony, in some sort of exotic Russian vein: Shostakovich’s music is, after all, riddled with debts to Mahler. But this performance was rushed, raucous, thoughtlessly phrased, with every crescendo read as accelerando. Mahler’s score repeatedly urges the conductor not to hurry, but the first movement’s “summer marching in” music was a mad dash – conductor and orchestra lost each other at one point – and the climax lacked any sense of the monumental, the very quality it needs. The minuet’s shape and structure were glossed over, while the scherzo’s posthorn episodes passed with little feeling for the long-drawn, free-floating idyll Mahler intended. The final adagio was more an impassioned Pathétique than a majestic hymn. Not the least bizarre aspect was Gergiev’s reluctance to pause between movements.

There were glimpses of individual stylishness – from the trombone and trumpet principals, Dudley Bright and David Gordon, and from the contralto soloist Anna Larsson, whose “O Mensch!” instantly stilled and stabilised the music’s flow. But the LSO is going to have to think long and hard how to handle Gergiev. It assumed it was in for a thrilling ride. Few can have expected it to nosedive so soon. ★★☆☆☆
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