Classical: Orchestre National de Lyon / Gilbert Royal Festival Hall London ooo99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PROBLEMS, WHAT problems? The often sidelined Symphony No 7 by Gustav Mahler has had two high-profile London performances this season, and by the time the American conductor Alan Gilbert had swept through it with eager, often affectionate brilliance, it was starting to sound as approachable and easy on the ear as the more popular parts of Mahler's earlier works. There was a confidence about the Lyon orchestra's playing with its guest conductor that positively invited you to forget about the symphony's difficult reputation and simply enjoy its dynamic onward drive and its feast of imaginative orchestral sound.

That's quite an achievement. Yet, if you had heard Pierre Boulez conduct it with the London Symphony Orchestra in October, you might have felt that, on this second occasion, you had only experienced half the story. Boulez, equally unconventional in shunning the agonised soul-baring that often passes for authentic Mahler-style, made it into a severe, monumental struggle with recalcitrant musical elements, reflecting his own belief that you had to work hard at the symphony to bring it off. Gilbert had evidently done the work in his own way, but the effect was completely different - a performance that went bounding enthusiastically across the pitfalls as though they scarcely existed.

Art concealed art, then. The unstoppable, uncomplicated high spirits that Gilbert found in the finale rested on pacing just as well judged as Boulez's, though it had the effect of sounding instinctive rather than carefully reasoned. There were moments when you could hear below the surface: the graded broadening of two successive returns of the symphony's main theme, for instance, to distinguish the false climax from the real one. But because it was done by pacing rather than volume, on the basis of mainly loud playing at this point, the cumulative impact was not as complete as it can be.

The tendency was to get loud too soon - bolstered by fat-toned, American-sounding horns. Some of the best things were the quietest, particularly in the second serenade movement, which had a relaxed glow. But the bright, daylight colours of what had gone before were a limitation as much as a pleasure: beautifully played, but somehow missing the point; free of shivers as Mahler's ghostly nocturnal imaginings turned as safe as a toddler's storybook.

There's no reason why you shouldn't play Mahler without irony. Directness serves most music better than distancing. Underplaying the emotional complexity, on the other hand, leaves the experience incomplete. Mahler No 7 this time turned into a kind of speculative romp, standing to one side of his output, whereas the result of Boulez's labours with the symphony was to pull it into the mainstream of the composer's output; unique but all of a piece with the tortured Sixth and Fifth Symphonies.