LSO / Gergiev, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

The central spook-house scherzo of Mahler's Seventh Symphony was where the seed of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No 1 was germinated; it's where Schoenberg's ambivalence towards Mahler turned to guarded admiration. Programming the pieces together was a shrewd move on Valery Gergiev's part. To use a cooking analogy, the Schoenberg might be seen as an intense reduction of Mahler's most experimental symphony – all hyperventilating counterpoint and unstable lyricism. And with Gergiev conducting it with the same hard-edged breathlessness that has characterised much of his Mahler, it felt less like an endorsement and more a disintegration of Mahler's unique sound-world.

That world was never so abstracted or phantasmagorical as it is in the Seventh Symphony, and, maybe for that reason, Gergiev seemed more at home traversing its curious landscape. That the symphony was originally to be called "The Song of the Night" gives us some indication of its apparitional quality. Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead was immediately called to mind at the opening, with Gergiev as Charon, striking out with his oars across the Styx, deep undulations in the string basses and tenor horn bellowing its peculiar lament. The middle section, where Mahler offers an aerial view of the mountain peaks, sent Gergiev into a trance, with rubatos so expansive as to almost come unstuck. It was a detached, academic sort of beauty that he and the London Symphony Orchestra elicited in such passages, but without the warmth and wonder that makes them so innately Mahlerian.

The weird and wonderful inner movements held one in constant amazement at their inventiveness but, again, they were academic as opposed to truly magical – maybe because everything was so brightly lit. Back in the spook-house scherzo, the things that go bump in the night – like those scarifying snap-pizzicatos and grunting bassoons – were properly startling, with Gergiev flapping around like a soul in torment.

And come the mad Viennese dance marathon that masquerades as the finale, Gergiev really put his foot down. The message was clearly "dance, or else", its rowdiness matched only by its air of desperation. Whether this was quite what Mahler had in mind, I'm not sure, but with the LSO winds powering through it with tireless brilliance, it was nothing if not radical.

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