Vladimir Putin’s favourite conductors both travel with excess baggage.
The paedophilia court-case arising from Mikhail Pletnev’s parallel life in Thailand has suddenly overshadowed his Western activities: when Britain’s popular press got its claws into him, it was a foregone conclusion that this wonderful musician would be forced to withdraw from the Proms. Meanwhile Valery Gergiev’s very public anti-Georgian warmongering (when Moscow and Tbilisi came to blows two years ago) makes his position as conductor of the World Orchestra for Peace somewhat piquant. But here he was, and here they were, presenting the second of two consecutive nights of Mahler symphonies.
Set up by Sir Georg Solti in 1995, this band consists of principal players from orchestras all over the world, and by definition they can’t spend much time together. Moreover, Gergiev is an exceptionally busy fellow. How much rehearsal-time did they have for this concert? Not enough, one sensed, as they launched into the filigree-delicate opening movement of Mahler’s Fourth, with its woodwind and sleigh-bells ringing out over gentle strings. This movement felt businesslike rather than magical, and for its spell to work, every moving part in the complex edifice must be controlled with fastidious precision. The second movement is designed to start with a very particular frisson, as a solo violin tuned sharp is played like a street-musician’s fiddle against the well-bred backdrop of the orchestral strings. Here that moment, which depends on a refined set of sonic balances, went for nothing. But the further this genially sunlit work progressed, the more it came together, and soprano Camilla Tilling’s paean to the joys of Mahler’s (very strange) child’s-eye view of heaven made a gloriously serene climax.
The period between the composition of Mahler’s fourth and fifth symphonies was marked by a life-threatening illness and the start of his relationship with the forceful Alma Schindler: the great Adagietto which was his love-song to her – and round which Visconti built his film ‘Death in Venice’ – was delivered by this orchestra with as honeyed a softness as you could wish. With the brilliant Timur Martynov taking the trumpet solo, and with Gail Williams and Valerie Aldrich-Smith the soloists on horn and harp respectively, the orchestral rough edges of this performance were gracefully smoothed.