LSO / Gergiev, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

The kinship between Shostakovich and Mahler goes way beyond the profound sense of irony that bonded them, and although it wasn't actually a Shostakovich piece that prefaced the second instalment of Valery Gergiev's LSO Mahler cycle, it might just as well have been.

Shostakovich's orchestration of his pupil Boris Tishchenko's First Cello Concerto didn't just reinvent the piece instrumentally, but psychologically, too. By all accounts, the composer (Tishchenko, that is) was none too pleased with its new colour and cast. Strings instead of brass (how radical is that) brought it closer to the sound-world of Shostakovich's 14th Symphony, which was in embryo at the time.

Tim Hugh, principal cello of the LSO, played it here with a concentration and earnestness that more than hinted at the singing basso profundo of the Shostakovich symphony. The long opening soliloquy was redolent of any one of Shostakovich's troubled string cadenzas, and though the voice was Tishchenko's, the landscape it traversed was entirely Shostakovich, on another lonely journey to the dark side.

Which is where Mahler joined him. And suffice it to say that Gergiev seemed far more comfortable hurtling towards the precipice of Mahler's Sixth than he had frolicking among the flora and fauna of the Third. This was a vast improvement on that performance. The Sixth needs to feel and sound harassed – and it did. Gergiev's tempo for the first movement was at the cutting edge of impetuous. Even the beautiful second subject that Mahler identified so closely with his beloved Alma was buffeted by the backdraught of its momentum, with the burgeoning horn descant given little room to breathe. The brief departure to mountain tops far from the madding crowd did find fleeting repose, but it was the sinew and defiance that pinned you to the seat.

Just as well, perhaps, that Gergiev opted for, in my view, the softer option of placing the andante and not the manic scherzo second. But even here, a febrile, nervous energy undercut any sense of consolation. Gergiev's neurotic manner was suddenly entirely at one with Mahler's.

And so it continued through the finale's ride to the abyss, the hammer of fate raised high in an act more more visual theatre than actual sound. The playing was mighty and valiant, with the LSO brass covering themselves with glory. The closing threnody for four trombones was as crest- fallen and gravely beautiful as you could hope to hear it.

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