When Gergiev conducted Mahler's Fourth symphony at the Barbican in 2008, my friend and I were seated across the aisle from each other. At first we were numb. Then, spontaneously, we looked at each other in horror. "The worst experience of my concert-going life," said my friend, who has been listening for over six decades. Would Prom 26 be better?
This time Gergiev conducted the World Orchestra for Peace, founded by George Solti in 1995. There are lots of summer season orchestras like these. Some, like the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, really are astounding, attracting the best musicians in the world, fired by intense musical passion. Others, like Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, are genuinely "orchestras for peace", where the players risk their lives to participate. They don't have money to train, travel, etc. so it's a real an act of faith when they come together. Musically, they're pretty good, considering. But pulling together musicians from all over doesn't automatically ensure anything.
Perhaps Gergiev has learned from the débacle of his Mahler cycler in 2008. This Mahler 4 was less self indulgent, but also without character. The LSO musicians then looked shocked, but at least that gave the performance tension since Gergiev wanted them to go one way, and they, with their extensive experience, didn't. This time, everyone was on best behaviour but the result was curiously inert. When music is basically as good as this, there always will be people who enjoy it. But separating performance from the music itself is another matter. There were some nice details, as to be expected, but overall there wasn't much coherence. Nothing offensive, but nothing of insight. Not even in the cataclysm at the end of the third movement, which marks the passage from death to the afterlife.
At least this time round Gergiev had a decent soloist who realizes that Das himmlische Leben isn't a West End show tune. On the other hand, there's more to it than feast after famine. Camilla Tilling was one of Ben Zander's discoveries years ago, and has matured. Good move to choose her, she delivered well.
In theory an extremely good conductor could carry off Mahler 4 and 5 in the same programme. There are links, but it would take a real Mahler specialist to bring them out. The Fifth can be played with chamber-like lucidity, reflecting the grace of the Fourth . But here they don't connect. The Fifth is popular when it's loud so no doubt there will have been many who enjoyed this more than I could, though I tried..
Please listen to the Orchestre de Paris Mahler cycle online. It's wonderful, a fabulous resource, and links to Henry-Louis de La Grange talk too.