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Pound-For-Pound Propulsion

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/17/2010 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony Number 6 in A Minor “Tragic”

Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Music Director and Conductor)

V. Gergiev (© Decca Records)

Does Valery Gergiev have a personal wormhole into which he can dart and appear any place on the globe a nanosecond later? No other explanation is possible. Maestro Gergiev is not only Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, founder and director of festivals from Israel to St. Petersburg, has recorded probably every Russian work of the 20th Century and zillions of others, founded the Mariinsky Orchestra in St. Petersburg, and probably is architect of the new Mariinsky Hall. (He also once conducted three concerts in three countries on one day!)

Amongst other feats, he is conducting that Mariinsky Orchestra is a half-dozen Mahler symphonies this week, beginning this afternoon with the most enigmatic of all, making a good show of the “Tragic” Symphony. Possibly because of the rarity (it wasn’t played in New York until 40 years after its composition) or because of the unseasonably warm October Sunday, that Carnegie Hall wasn’t packed, though reasonably well filled. But those who missed this one will have chances–with luck–to hear the omnipresent Mr. Gergiev on Wednesday, Friday and next Sunday.

They should make the effort. The Mariinsky is not a smooth orchestra, but it is powerful, its roughness sometimes giving a sense of exciting spontaneity, and Mr. Gergiev had prepared a surprise in the last movement which had to be seen to be believed.

The Sixth is of course the one with the great timpani bangs. First one kettledrum, then two, and then… well, that’s the surprise. He also reversed the second and third movements, as Mahler had suggested, to keep the “classical” form, but this is more common these day.

There was no mistaking the tragedy of the symphony from the very first downward beat and the first strings shouting out the first theme against the rasping drums which would be heard so often. From then on, Mr. Gergiev led the Mariinsky through a hard-driving opening, interrupted with the romantic melody (supposedly picturing his wife), and the cowbells tinkling along in different notes.

No recording can capture the urgency of this music, but equally no listener can fail to imagine that Mahler hated French horn players. The Mariinsky used all eight players, but First Chair Stanislav Tses must be named for his hundreds of solos, make with only two tiny little errors. (Ms. Tses undoubtedly has a pair of replacement lips!).

The slow movement has some of Mahler’s finest string writing. The Mariinsky strings never had the velvety perfect color of other European orchestras, but this only added to the work’s athletic masculine muscularity. The scherzo had all Mahler’s twists and turns. The violins patted their harps and celesta did their work. But the Mariinsky’s First Chair Trumpet player not only played radiantly but stood up and waved his trumpet around Dizzy Gillespie style. This was no show. It went along with the whole pulsing drama.

As expected, the finale was like a festival of bands. Yes, Mahler tried to make this a tragic symphony, but Mr. Gergiev made certain that the whole huge orchestra, from the lowest note on the bass tuba up to the three piccolos had a say in the matter.

Yet, in a certain sense, the Sixth was literally child’s play for this conductor. Like a five-year-old with his first drum set, Mr. Gergiev made certain that the five-note tattoo would overwhelm the orchestra. Yes, pound for pound, the kettledrums kept things moving. These were the hands of fate, or the “rhythm of catastrophe”, but they were also the familiar motifs which kept us mesmerized.

In the finale, Mr. Gergiev had a surprise. Mahler had specified “short powerful hammer strokes”. But for the first, second and third occurrences, one timpanist got up, seeming to stand on upon the wall and took a sledgehammer, pounding down as hard as he could, making the rafters ring.

This no exaggeration. The only time I’ve seen a hammer this big has been in Tom and Jerry cartoons!! I had no idea they existed in real life.

Then again, the Sixth Symphony was not real life. It was Mahler’s creation of an Old Testament universe. And Mr. Gergiev, who, more than most conductors, probably figures he is Jehovah Itself, ruled this universe with an ever-propulsive unremitting authority.

Harry Rolnick



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