Strauss: Metamorphosen; Mahler: Symphony No.2 'Resurrection'

London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev

Barbican Hall, 23 April 20084 stars

Valery GergievValery Gergiev's Mahler cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra seems now to have found its identity and this thrilling account of the 'Resurrection' Symphony, heard on the second of two consecutive evening performances, bore many of the hallmarks that have distinguished the series so far: dramatic, driven and occasionally impatient. With the LSO on splendid form, producing a brilliant, bright sound that pushed the Barbican's close acoustic to its limits, Gergiev presided over a drama of despair and redemption of the greatest intensity.

At the heart of the programme of this concert, which featured Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen in the first half, was an ironic commentary on the two composers. Although he greatly admired his music, and used his considerable influence to champion it, Strauss never quite understood what he saw as Mahler's incessant requirement for redemption – 'redemption from what?' he'd ask. When, some three decades after Mahler's death, Strauss penned his Metamorphosen, a reaction to what he saw as not only the destruction of his home country in the Second World War but also of German Art, in whose redemptive power he'd naively placed all his hopes, Strauss produced a work of desolate resignation. Although Gergiev has little track record with this composer, he produced a performance of this, one of Strauss's most enigmatic works, that movingly balanced this feeling of resignation with an occasional sense of helpless anger. The string soloists must take a great deal of credit for producing a sound that glowed and shimmered, and for playing their solo passages with consistent, effortless virtuosity.

After the weak, limping quotation from the Funeral March of Beethoven's 'Eroica' Symphony that brought the Metamorphosen to its hushed conclusion, Gergiev launched into the opening Funeral March of Mahler's Second Symphony with customary power. Keeping tight control, he guided us through the movement rarely letting the tension slacken. Although the lyrical passages were performed with tenderness, the sense of foreboding was never far away, and Gergiev unleashed one powerful climax after another. The conductor might not have done much to persuade us of the movement's architectural cohesion - probably more Mahler's fault than the conductor's - but it was an account of searing intensity.

The central movements of the symphony were more of a mixed bag. The Andante Moderato was performed with grace and charm, providing just the gently lilting relief required after the opening movement, even if it was still not without a certain underlying menace. The third movement, an orchestral version of Mahler's acerbic song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn where St. Francis preaches to a noisy and philistine audience of fish, was surely taken faster than Mahler's marked 'in ruhig fliessender Bewegung' [calmly flowing]. However, the LSO had no problems at this lively tempo and the woodwind, in particular, still found plenty of opportunity to add snarl and menace into their interjections. 'Urlicht', though, was given an unconvincing account. A lot of the blame must, unfortunately, lie with mezzo-soprano Zlata Bulycheva. A star of the Kirov, she undoubtedly has an impressive voice – rich and silky – but her German was painfully unidiomatic and her voice had too much heft for her to be able to manoeuvre it without effort. This allied to Gergiev's fast tempo – the impatience that had marred some other performances in the series creeping in again – and the rather loud rendition of the brass's first chorale unfortunately kept the performance earthbound.

There were no such disappointments in the massive final movement. Gergiev's reluctance to linger might have removed a little of the mystery from those passages where, after big-bang like climaxes, the musical particles are left floating, but the raw drama he brought to the other episodes was irresistible. The wonderful passage after the extended brass chorale – with the horns on particularly fine form – was truly exhilarating while elsewhere the tension was piled on with relish and mastery. When the London Symphony Chorus finally entered with their hushed 'Aufersteh'n' there was a real feeling of a battle having been fought and won. Soprano Elena Mosuc span her line beautifully, if not ideally effortlessly, above the chorus and seemed more at home in the German language than Bulycheva. By this time, though, there was no point in nit-picking. The LSO chorus was in glorious voice and egged on more and more by Gergiev they joined with the orchestra to produce an enormous, brilliant and overwhelming sound. The pure, visceral thrill of the final bars, greeted with an enthusiastic ovation from the packed audience, crowned a very fine performance of this great work.

By Hugo Shirley