Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 2
Irina Mataeva (soprano)
Olga Borodina (mezzo)
Russian Chamber Chorus of New York
Riverside Choral Society
Valery Gergiev (conductor)
When I was in Armenia to cover the opening of the 2003-04 season, I remarked that the orchestra in Yerevan exhibited an odd demographic. The players were either young aspirants or ancient veterans. Mirroring the desperate plight of the population as a whole, there were no middle-aged men, since they have virtually all left the country to seek work in the post-Soviet era. The Kirov Orchestra looked the same for a few seasons, but has now rebounded a bit, although I am not sure how many of the members who appeared on the Carnegie stage on Wednesday evening are regular personnel. The occasion was a noteworthy one: a performance by the charismatic and controversial Valery Gergiev of the Symphony # 2 of Gustav Mahler in the hall where the composer first presented it to the Western hemisphere.
There was indeed a sense of import to the proceedings. Many musical celebrities were in the audience as well as luminaries from the other arts as well. Most expected a glorious evening, however, having heard the ensemble two nights earlier, I was considerably less anticipatory.
My companion pointed out that, over the years, we have heard dozens of performances of the Mahler 2 and yet this was the first to have so little effect. A brief dissection follows, but may not quite get at the heart of the matter. What made this reading so irrelevant was its total lack of emotional content.
Let’s begin with the orchestra itself. Their sound is rough and unfocused, almost amateurish in spots. The trumpet section is simply dreadful, so solos were to be feared rather than cherished. The percussion is much too loud and, pushed by Gergiev to sound atavistic, simply overwhelmed their mates (and us) with a barrage of noise on several occasions. On Monday night, the Capriccio espagnol sounded like flamenco with iron shackles on the dancers’ legs; this night the sense of slogging far outweighed (literally) any idea of flight or fancy.
Gergiev seemed to have little or no conception of the architecture of the piece. In a work of this size, the building blocks and the blueprints are vital, and yet seemed to be missing from this particular construction site. What was left was a forced march. American soldiers have an expression, “one foot in front of the other”, which, roughly translated from the idiom, means that we will get through this bad patch somehow. I kept repeating this mantra silently.
There were indeed some moments to praise, although not many. Conducting without a podium, Gergiev is very animated and can stir his troops into flashes of brilliance. What he cannot do, apparently, is get them to play with any sense of Viennese lilt or contrast. Think of a solid but not particularly inspirational version of the first movement of the ”Leningrad” Symphony: rhythmically monotonous and spiritually dead. There is a lot of scholarly talk about the influence of Mahler on Shostakovich, but this is not what these music historians had in mind.
Olga Borodina is in fine voice and that voice is huge. We were seated quite far back for this performance and this was a good thing. She is in town for a recital of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky and has never sounded more rounded, but I did not find her rendition of Urlicht at all moving. I do have some trouble with Ms. Borodina, whose technically perfect voice seems a bit heavy to properly convey any complete sort of emotional spectrum. Soprano Irina Mataeva was completely overmatched by her mezzo partner and did not especially soar over the bombast of the orchestra (although, this was consistent with an almost inaudible flute as the soul ascending).
Enough already. This is an hour and a half of my life that I will never get back.
Frederick L. Kirshnit