Gergiev and Mahler at Lincoln Center

Classic Arts Features   Gergiev and Mahler at Lincoln Center
Complete cycles of Mahler symphonies are hardly infrequent, but the composer's hardy circle of devotees finds them hard to resist. This season finds Valery Gergiev leading the Mariinsky Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra in a three-part series concluding in February.


Mahler is making "more and more of an impact on our musical world," according to the conductor Valery Gergiev. And with the 2010 _11 musical season encompassing twin anniversaries: the 150th of Mahler's birth in 1860 and the 100th of his death in 1911: his star burns especially bright.

New York last witnessed a Mahler cycle in the spring of 2009, when Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez shared responsibilities conducting the Berlin Staatskapelle. This season finds something of the reverse: a traversal of all the symphonies by a single conductor, Gergiev, and the two orchestras he currently heads, the Mariinsky Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The first phase took place in October, when Gergiev led the Mariinsky Orchestra in a marathon of six symphonies performed in five concerts over eight days at Carnegie Hall. Next month he returns with the London Symphony to finish the job at a slightly more leisurely pace. The Seventh, Third and Ninth Symphonies (in that order), along with the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony, will be performed in three Avery Fisher Hall concerts on February 23, 25 and 27 as part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series. These are works that span most of the composer's career chronologically as well as the breadth of the symphonies' emotional content.

Gergiev's voracious musical appetite often finds satisfaction through total immersion in a composer's work. In recent New York seasons he has conducted the complete symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich as well as a wide-ranging Stravinsky festival at the New York Philharmonic. Given the tendency of audiences: and critics: to associate performers with music of their native countries, which sometimes is little more than a kneejerk reaction, some people may wonder whether the Russian Gergiev may be on less familiar ground with the Austrian Mahler.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In 2007, the very year he became the LSO's principal conductor, Gergiev undertook a complete Mahler cycle with the orchestra in London, to strong critical acclaim. Preserved on discs, the final installment of the symphonies has just been released on the orchestra's house label, LSO Live. The orchestra has a long Mahler tradition. According to a spokesman, it last played a Mahler cycle under Michael Tilson Thomas, a predecessor of Gergiev as principal conductor, and before that there were cycles by Claudio Abbado and Bernstein. Just last year the LSO performed Mahler, including the composer's Ninth Symphony under Bernard Haitink in New York.

Moreover, since 1988, when he took over the leadership of the Mariinsky Theater, Gergiev has polished its orchestra as a symphonic ensemble, with Mahler playing a vital role. The composer's current popularity is often traced to the 1960s, when he was championed above all by Leonard Bernstein. Coincidentally, stirrings of a Mahler revival also occurred then in Russia, which made the composer a presence on the Russian musical scene when the musical talents of Gergiev (born in 1953) began to blossom. Soon all the major Soviet conductors had taken up the composer: Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Evgeny Svetlanov, Kyril Kondrashin, Yuri Temirkanov: and by the 1990s Mahler cycles had ceased to be rarities.

If in the West Mahler previously suffered from neglect, in Russia he was the victim of an unofficial ban that persisted during World War II and the postwar Stalinist years. Nor were his Jewish roots overlooked during a time of Soviet anti-Semitism. It was not always so. As Gergiev likes to note, Mahler himself made three trips to Russia and conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra during two of them. The repertoire was varied, but on the final trip, in 1907, he led the orchestra in his Fifth Symphony. Igor Stravinsky, who was there, recalled, "Mahler impressed me greatly, himself and his conducting."

Mahler's star was eclipsed during World War I and the Russian Revolution but came back strong in Russia during the relatively permissive 1920s, a time when, according to Mahler scholar Donald Mitchell, Russia was among only three countries (the United States and United Kingdom were the others) that did not ignore Mahler. Conductors included Aleksander Gauk and Evgeny Mravinsky.

Later, Dmitri Shostakovich and his musicologist-friend Ivan Sollertinsky, who wrote an influential book on Mahler, kept the Mahler torch burning. As Mahler's principal successor in the symphonic tradition, Shostakovich deeply admired Mahler's work. According to Shostakovich's memoirs, Testimony, Sollertinsky's love of Mahler opened Shostakovich's eyes. "Studying Mahler changed many things in my taste as a composer." For conductors steeped in Shostakovich, the symphonies can be said to supply a window back on those of Mahler. Outside Russia the acceptance of Mahler supplied a foundation for audiences to appreciate Shostakovich.

Russian musicologist Inna Barsova has noted that Mahler continues to influence Russian composers, especially through meditative movements like the slow finale of the Third Symphony and the Adagio from the Ninth Symphony, both of which will be performed by the LSO. In other respects these symphonies are almost polar opposites. The Third Symphony, Mahler's longest, is a life-affirming paean to nature; its mezzo soloist sings, in the words of Nietzsche, of "joy deeper than heartbreak."

By contrast, the deeply spiritual Ninth, which includes a reference to Beethoven's "Les Adieux" piano sonata, is often regarded as an earthly farewell by Mahler, who suffered from an incurable heart defect. The Seventh Symphony, which the LSO will also play, stands somewhere in between. It has long been regarded as perhaps the most perplexing of all the Mahler symphonies, its almost giddy final music posing a challenge to the conductor to reconcile it with what has come before.

The last of the three LSO concerts will also include, in addition to the Ninth Symphony, another Adagio movement: that from Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony. Had Gergiev wanted to, he could have programmed the latter work in the completed version by Rudolf Barshai, the noted conductor who died last year. Deryck Cooke's version has attracted more attention, but Barshai's version stands as yet another example of Russia's devotion to Mahler.

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