I just got in from hearing the London Symphony and Gergiev do Mahler 7. Received wisdom says that this is a problematic piece, with the outer movements not seeming to be from the same piece as the inner movements, especially the two Nachtmusiken; the finale also comes in for criticism as being strangely banal. I never found the work to be a problem, but I have an odd relationship with the piece – it was the first Mahler I ever heard, when I brought home an LP copy of Lenny and the NY Phil from the public library back in my home town. I was caught right in the first few bars, and have had a special affection for the piece ever since. I had the privilege of hearing Bernstein conduct the piece in the 80s, and it was the way he could capture the nuances of tempo that I missed tonight. Gergiev simply played the piece too darn fast. The first movement was the best, but the 2nd, 4th and 5th were all rushed. Rehearsal 72 in the second movement is marked molto moderato in 4/4 but tonight it was played as though in 2/2, with a moderately moving half note. It was impossible to articulate the staccato triplet offbeats in the horns at 3 before 79, and so the charming waltz-like effect was lost.
Maybe it was just the Lenny charisma, but somehow he made the finale work – it was ironic in its juxtapositions. There is that startling moment when a soft a-flat chord is revealed when a tutti C major chord cuts off, and there are similarly abrupt inflections of tempo – I count 72 indications of tempo changes and nuances in the score of the finale. And yet the piece is sincere as well – the bell-ringing passage near the end is genuinely joyful. Tonight’s rushed performance seemed to bring out the banalities, and lacked the sense of irony that Bernstein achieved. At moments it seemed like Mahler had been influenced by Shostakovich, which is not a good thing, in my book.
While the conducting was dismaying, the playing was magnificent – rich in dynamic contrasts, virtuosic in the demanding solos (the horn playing was memorable), precise and clear, but warm in ensemble sound. The end of the fourth movement was magical, as it should be – all credit to Mahler and the players rather than the conductor.