July 2008

Mahler - Symphony No. 6 in A minor
London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev cond.
LSO Live LSO0661
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2008

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Valery Gergiev, one of today’s most exciting and impassioned conductors, has recorded a great deal of Russian music but relatively little else. Now, however, as chief conductor of the London SO, he has begun a Mahler cycle with one of the most intensely personal of that composer’s symphonies, and it bodes very well for what is to come.

Mahler’s music has enjoyed great favor among Russian musicians for decades. Shostakovich, for one, acknowledged his influence as much as Mussorgsky’s. Gergiev has apparently absorbed this, but he relies on no tradition, either Mahlerian or Russian. The stunning impact of this Sixth comes from a fresh response, impelled by an intensity in sync with the composer’s own.

For all his characteristic forcefulness, Gergiev avoids laying on a gratuitous excess of emotion, drama or sheer physical drive. Mahler, after all, wrote these things in, and Gergiev does not attempt to trump him at his own game. It is good, too, that he places the slow movement before the scherzo -- a choice that conflicts with the Mahler Society’s critical edition but is supported by Mahler’s own performances and those of other conductors who were close to him.

Most of all, Gergiev brings to the work such persuasive momentum. He’s not overdriven, but has no patience with monumentalizing. In this decidedly live performance, the music moves and breathes and simply sweeps aside any thought of resistance, and the sumptuous yet detailed sound, played back in SACD or plain CD, is another bright feather in James Mallinson’s already richly adorned producer’s cap. This promises to be a fascinating cycle.