LSO/Gergiev, Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Valery Gergiev chose Mahler's hymn to nature and the all-embracing power of love – his 3rd Symphony – to launch his much-vaunted Mahler cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra. And if this is the shape of things to come, then heaven help us when the tragedy kicks in. I cannot remember when I last heard a conductor and composer so temperamentally ill-matched. Was this really the orchestra that recently played Mahler with such warmth and fine-tuned flexibility under Michael Tilson Thomas?

Mahler's 3rd begins with the most dramatic wake-up call in music – eight horns in unison and thunderous reports from the percussion. It sounded flabbergasting in 1910 and still does in 2007. Gergiev did not spare the decibels. But what this huge first movement does so spectacularly is to set up contrasts between the primordial darkness of winter, the fragrant rustle of spring, and the riotous Bacchic processionals of summer.

There is magic as well as thunder in those contrasts and if Gergiev was aware of them, they were well hidden. Mahler's huge dynamic range was reduced to loud and not so loud and whilst he and the orchestra ushered in the marching bands, one longed for more variety in colour and timbre.

There was little relief amidst the flora and fauna of Mahler's inner movements. The Viennese charm of Mahler's graceful "flower" minuet was nowhere and Gergiev's placing of the third movement's offstage post-horn solo was a missed opportunity – so close as to sound almost a part of the orchestra, instead of magically wafting in from afar.

But then came alto Anna Larsson with Nietzsche's words of warning for mankind, and we might have done well to heed those words because Gergiev's account of the symphony's finale was overwrought in ways I wouldn't have thought possible.

Instead of opening to its embrace, he harassed it heartlessly. The sound was coarse and unyielding. Mahler's glowing peroration was reduced to an ugly mirror image of the first movement's marching band, with timpani pounding unforgivingly. There are many words you could use to describe this performance but Mahler would not be one of them.

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