If there were to be one orchestra that is essentially a “dream team”, the World Orchestra for Peace would surely be it. Comprising of almost 100 elite players from 33 different countries, the majority of whom hold principle positions in their respective orchestras, I couldn’t help but be excited by the prospect of seeing such a 300-spartans-like ensemble for the first time, under the mighty command of Valery Gergiev.

Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 was first up, in comparison to some of his other symphonies, a rather dainty, seemingly light hearted affair; perhaps a break from the turmoil of his 3rd. But, as Mahler himself admitted, he was unable to fully deliver his light-hearted intentions, as his composition naturally seemed to verge towards the dark and nightmarish. “It becomes clearer to me that one does not compose; one is composed”, he said. As the piece opened I was immediately struck by the incredible ensemble sound the orchestra had; the strings sounded as though they were one solo virtuoso, with beautiful articulation and expression, injecting some life into a melody that can otherwise sound rather listless and dull. Each note seemed to be carefully considered and “loved”; nothing was treated as arbitrary here. There was nice balance in the interpretation of the music struck between playful beauty and mystery, naïvety and danger, with some foreboding hints of the 5th Symphony. Particularly commendable was the vigour with which the orchestra approached Mahler’s creative orchestration, exemplified by leader Thanos Adamopoulis’s incredible projection on solo pizzicatos. I found the third movement the most enjoyable, as the subdued nature of the first two movements finally found some sort of release in typically Mahlerian fashion.

In food terms, if the 4th Symphony had been the evening’s crab salad starter, with a hint of chilli, the 5th Symphony would have been a fiendishly hot curry of human flesh and blood, cooked over the fires of hell, with only a little pot of raita to soothe the burn... Well, maybe not quite. Metaphors aside, the two pieces seem to fit quite well together, as the slightly foreboding end of the 4th gives way to a funeral march to start the 5th. Beautiful melodies can be found in abundance in the first movement and were well enjoyed by the players who milked them for maximum schmaltz, whilst generating a lot of power for the more sinister and explosive parts of the music. When you thought the [highly enjoyable] torment was finally over at the end of the first movement, the second plunged the audience back into the darkest depths in what is essentially a recapitulation of the first. Particularly interesting was the articulation and dynamic interpretation/adherence employed by the ensemble, allowing all elements of Mahler’s sophisticated orchestration to be heard. One minor thing that could be said of the performance of this movement is that, due to the supreme quality of the players, the sense of struggle so characteristic of Mahler was slightly lacking in the high register climaxes. The third movement lived up to its name (scherzo means ‘joke’ in Italian) with delightfully ironic interplay between light and dark forces. The contrapuntal writing was well balanced as interweaving melodies were passed around the orchestra, while some outstanding horn playing filled the hall majestically. The fourth movement, Adagietto, was played faultlessly and expressively, with wonderful “waves” of sound created by the careful attention to dynamics. In short, one couldn’t ask any more from the orchestra. After this relaxing break, the fifth and final movement was launched into at a tremendous pace, (perhaps too fast at points as the melody was occasionally a little muddy in the lower registers) with committed, powerful and technically perfect playing driving the fugue forward. Once again there was beautiful interplay between delicate elements of orchestration and the more expressionistic points. The magnanimous ending was deservedly met by a standing ovation. All in all a spectacular performance epitomising everything this orchestra stands for.

Simon Birch
5th August 2010