LSO/Gergiev, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

Arnold Schoenberg's take on Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande feeds on the same neurotic tendencies that mark out Gustav Mahler's work – the only difference being that Schoenberg does so without irony. His symphonic poem is roughly contemporary with Mahler's Sixth Symphony and inhabits the same dark places that make that work so disturbing. But it was Mahler's First Symphony that Valery Gergiev chose for the third instalment of his Mahler cycle, and what should have made for the greatest contrast proved anything but.

Gergiev's stressful reading of the Schoenberg left one in no doubt that the perspective is that of the tortured Golaud, brother of Pelléas and husband of Mélisande. This is his dark night of the soul, the love music fuelling terrible jealousies and serving only to underscore his living nightmare. But if this performance sounded more oppressive and illogical than it should, the fault probably lay with Gergiev's failure to offset the harmonic density with lucid balancing of the orchestral texture. The overriding impression here was of opaqueness, climax upon climax bearing down with unregulated loudness. Even the sinister effect of brass mutings went for very little with the slippery trombone glissandi of Schoenberg's startling descent into Golaud's catacombs barely audible in the welter of sound.

The Mahler was all brightness and bravado. But where was its warmth and charm? Gergiev is not a natural Mahlerian. He makes all the right noises, he applies the appropriate rubatos, and generates tremendous excitement. There were passages – not least in the tempestuous finale – where the smouldering figurations of the London Symphony Orchestra strings could have generated power for a small nation.

But so much of this performance felt manufactured; the spontaneity that makes for real magic was at a premium. I don't think Gergiev and the orchestra really felt their way into the dewy daybreak of the opening – the "sound of silence" was hardly ear-pricking, the bird calls prosaic. And would Gergiev care to explain why the string bass solo at the start of the third movement was played (for the first time, in my experience) by the entire section? He even denied the LSO's magnificent horns their moment of theatre at the close. Mahler directs them to stand. They remained seated and, in spirit, so did I.