SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

MAHLER: Complete Symphonies; Adagio from Sym. No. 10 Soloists & Choirs/ London Sym. Orch./ Valery Gergiev – LSO Live (10 SACDs)

Gergiev is well worth your serious consideration, and the LSO by the way has never sounded better.

Published on December 6, 2012

MAHLER: Symphonies Nos. 1-9; Adagio from Sym. No. 10 — Elena Mosuc, soprano (2)/ Zlata Bulycheva, mezzo-soprano (2 & 8)/ Anna Larson, alto (3)/ Laura Claycomb (4)/ Viktoria Yastrebova, soprano (8)/ Ailish Tynan, soprano (8)/ Liudmila Dudinova, soprano (8)/ Lili Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano (8)/ Sergei Semishkur, tenor (8)/ Alexey Markov, baritone (8)/ Evgeny Nikitin, bass (8)/ Tiffin Boy’s Choir/ Choir of Eltham College/ London Symphony Chorus/ Choral Arts Society of Washington/ London Sym. Orch./ Valery Gergiev – LSO Live multichannel SACD LSO0730 (10 SACDs), 11+ hours [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****1/2:

To simplify things, I am going to give the links to the reviews we have done on most of these symphonies (all but Nos. 5 and 9):

No. 1 

No. 2 & 10

No. 3

No. 4 

No. 6 

No. 7

No. 8

Our Editor gave the First four stars even though the review itself doesn’t lend it to that conclusion, with which I generally agree. It is a lower-keyed performance, though not for want of trying, usually by what seems an artificial hiking up of the tempo. Indeed, the funeral march seems trying to beat a rain storm while Gergiev’s fast-paced finale misses so many dramatic opportunities. Mahler was less a composer of true development than one of musical reappearance; his themes come back in different guises, with key changes or dynamic fluctuations, or different orchestrations. But each of these is meant to convey a different emotional impact and Gergiev’s attempts, if they are such, fail in this work. There is still a lot of requisite excitement—the music after all has this built-in—but I’m not sure the conductor gets it. Gergiev takes his stand as a conductor who rejects the completion effort of No. 10, like Bernstein, Boulez (amazingly) and others—wrongly, in my opinion. Those of us who have come to love the Tenth in its various manifestations recognize it as truly Mahlerian, a worthy inheritor of the problems posed by the Ninth, and a precursor of the atonality which would almost have certainly followed at some point had Mahler lived longer. But this is a passionate and powerful performance, worthy of any, and I wish he had thought otherwise and recorded the whole thing.

The Second, one of two that we made “Multichannel Disc of the Month” (the other is the Sixth) came as quite a surprise to me. Though Gergiev is still rather fleet-of-foot in many passages, especially (in general) Mahler’s three-to-a-bar movements where his refusal to stop and smell the flowers misses a lot of the humor and even pathos in the music, he is able to carry through with this massive work in fine fashion. The choral work in the last movement is truly superb, the hushed entrance of the choir provoking gasps of astonishment, the listener afraid to move for fear of disturbing the atmosphere. But most importantly is the power he summons in the last bars, some of the best on disc, though the Haitink recording with the Chicago Symphony retains pride of place. Even MTT doesn’t conjure up this kind of a storm. All three of the readings fall just short of the amazing Proms performance from another surprising source, Gustavo Dudamel, who’s video Second has an emotional fervor not heard since Bernstein.

No. 3 is a real delight, Gergiev firing on all cylinders and perfectly managing the symphonic sprawl of Mahler’s longest opus. Anna Larsson is wonderful in the Also sprach Zarathustra movement while the boys are about as cheery as any I have heard in the Wunderhorn section. But the symphony lives or dies in the last movement, a great extended hymn, and here Gergiev does wonderfully until the very last bars where he seems impatient and in a hurry to get it all over with. Contrast to that recording of recordings, Leonard Bernstein on Sony, and you see how this passage has the power to loft most people straight to the heavens. Gergiev leaves us just above the ozone layer even though the work as a whole is very successful and nicely judged as to tempo and contrast.

In my review of Four I was not too happy, and remain unconvinced as to the conductor’s understanding of the work. Even though its chamber-like qualities and rather simple metrical construction make it among Mahler’s most accessible and technically easy compositions, the inner strength of the piece relies more than most on the director’s ability to convey exceptionally strong nuances and bar-by-bar projections of the hidden feeling of the symphony as a whole, which always points to the emotional quality found in the last movement. Even though Laura Claycomb sings as beautifully here as she does in the MTT performance, that reading outshines this one, though neither surpasses Haitink’s gorgeous performance with the Concertgebouw.

My first encounter with Gergiev’s Fifth was not this recording but a DVD issue that also included the Fourth, with the World Orchestra for Peace. Neither impressed me, so I approached this Fifth with a lot of caution. As it turns out my apprehensions were completely misplaced; what passed as a lethargic and totally lackluster effort on the DVD resoundingly shows forth on this SACD as a well-judged performance of great excitement and breathless virtuosity. In this case Gergiev’s penchant towards speediness pays dividends in the last movement which responds to this sort of treatment very well. Even the Adagietto, perfunctory and deadly on the DVD, comes to life with genuine passion.

No. 6, as mentioned, got one of our monthly surround sound awards, but truthfully almost any one of these recordings could qualify. The propulsive, maniacal lock steps of the opening movement have rarely sounded so threatening, and the long last movement is hell-bent on emphasizing the “tragic” dimensions of the work, a title that Mahler created and rejected, but which has remained attached to the work and rightly so, as it is probably the most  despondent of all his symphonies. Perhaps the public, reacting to this sense of doom and gloom, had good reason to give long consideration to this piece which it rejected on first hearing. In this recording, the long last bars are beautifully tapered so that the last gasp of the dying man in the form of a huge fortissimo chord startles and even scares us in its fury. By the way, Gergiev opts for Mahler’s second thoughts in regards to the placement of the Andante, putting it second, and before the Scherzo.

The faux-spookiness of the opening of No. 7 previews a good beginning for this, Mahler’s most critically problematic symphony. I say “critically” because so many critics either find fault with the work, considering it structurally weak, and the two outer movements having no relation to the three inner ones, representative of some of Mahler’s most fantastical exotic music ever. It’s baloney of course, and more recent cooler heads recognize what a structural gem this really is, a connecting tissue between the devastation of the end of the Sixth and sunlit optimism of the coming Eighth. But what is really happening, more so than any of the other symphonies, is Mahler’s imagination run wild, from the opening rhythms of the first movement inspired by the sound of his oars rowing across a lake, to the two Nachtmusik pieces, a Scherzo of Berliozian poltergeists, and a final brilliant affirmation that all that went before was just a dream. Gergiev understands the work very well, and even though this is a piece with a formidable recording history of greatness (Bernstein, MTT, Nott, and many more) he takes his place among the very best.

In his review of the “Symphony of a Thousand”, Patrick Lam seemed very convinced by Gergiev’s interpretative stance, only thwarted by the massive reverberation of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I understand this, though I am not so sure that it bothers me as much. True, the music doesn’t fare as well in the quieter or more exposed spots (of which, to be fair, there are very many), but the climaxes and loud passages are stunningly glorious. It all depends; some people will have a greater tolerance for this than others. The temptation to record this work at St. Paul’s Cathedral must have been overwhelming, but I think the church defeated the engineers in the long run. Nevertheless the interpretation stands as one of the finest, surpassing Zinman but falling short of MTT and especially, Colin Davis, whose underrated and astoundingly brilliant SACD with the Bavarian Radio Symphony in Munich (with a cast of luminaries like Alessandra Marc, Sharon Sweet, Vesselina Kasarova, Ben Heppner, Sergei Leiferkus, and Rene Pape) is tough to beat—I would tie him with MTT for the high SACD honors.

Of all the symphonies it is the Ninth that had me most worried with Gergiev; his predilection for pushing through more sedate passages didn’t seem congruous with the Ninth, a work that needs a lot of help because of its long lines and non-automatic rhythmic propulsion. A rehearing of Karajan, Bernstein (Concertgebouw and the flawed but sensational Berlin recording), and Abbado proves the point that the conductor must have the patience to wait for the music, not vice-versa. But again my expectations were turned away, and he succeeds on every front, giving us a Ninth that is fully competitive with all but the very best (see previous sentence). The last movement is wrenching in its acceptance of fate, and the Scherzo is brutally forceful, one of the most exciting on record.

The sound is quite vivid and remarkable in this set, equally and surpassing many of the lauded SFS discs with Tilson Thomas, whose Mahlerian credentials are sturdy yet whose sometimes balletic approach to the conductor brings him closer to Zinman than to Bernstein. It’s tough to choose between the two as the SFS series is spectacular sound-wise, though I really do think that this LSO Live release is much weightier, and generally speaking Gergiev’s interpretations a lot more virile than MTT. It has not been an easy road for Gergiev to convince me of his Mahlerian resume, but he has done so, with the hits far outweighing the misses, something common to all Mahlerian conductors except Bernstein, who still retains his amazing power to persuade in each and every one of the symphonies. But in the SACD world I would have to say that MTT, Gergiev, and Zander now hold sway with Fischer creeping up a close second and Nott waiting in the wings. It’s a good time to love Mahler and great sound; Gergiev is well worth your serious consideration. The LSO by the way has never sounded better—a fantastic orchestra!

—Steven Ritter




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