Rattle Brings LSO and Mahler 9 to Tonhalle Maag Zurich

28/04/2018

Mahler: London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 27.4.2018. (JR)

Mahler – Symphony No. 9

‘Suche Karte’ (ticket wanted) – is not a sign often seen in Zurich; it is more at home in Salzburg, Bayreuth, Vienna and Berlin. But when the LSO is in town, tickets are in high demand. Expectations therefore for this concert were high, and they were not dashed.

The Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. At 114 years old the LSO, the oldest of the London orchestras, is therefore a relative newcomer on the block, though they both cannot stand comparison with the Gewandhaus Leipzig (1743) and the even older Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden (1548). (My research reveals a few even older orchestras in Copenhagen, Weimar and Kassel.) The Tonhalle is celebrating its centenary and a half with some prestigious ‘extra concerts’ and top of the list must be this visit of the LSO with Sir Simon Rattle and Mahler’s Ninth, for just one performance, at the start of the LSO’s tour of Germany and the US. Rattle performed this very symphony just a few days ago in London (reviewed by Mark Berry click here). Mark was not bowled over by Rattle’s interpretation, though he admits he has something of a personal aversion to Rattle’s mannered way with what he calls ‘central repertoire prior to Schoenberg’; I know exactly what he means, also much admire Haitink’s unfussy yet clear way with Mahler but was keen to find out whether I too would come away unmoved.

Perhaps it helped, or perhaps it did not, that I did not hear in the first half Helen Grime’s Woven Space which preceded the Mahler in the Barbican. Mahler in Zurich was thankfully presented on its own. No doubt it also helped not to have to hear the work in the Barbican with its constricted sound; the risk in Zurich was that the LSO and the huge forces required for a Mahler symphony would overwhelm the listeners in the Tonhalle’s temporary wooden shoe-box concert hall. They did not.

The opening movement gave us the chance to savour the lush string sound of the orchestra; Mahler requiring extra desks helped, it must be said. I found Rattle’s take on this valedictory work most convincing. He deconstructed the work to a great extent but stressed its grotesque elements, its modernity, the score looking ahead to Berg and Shostakovich. Rattle conducted without a score, had his say in every bar, and was thoroughly engrossing.

The ppps were as mesmerising as the fffs were impressive in their grandeur. The second movement, a Ländler and a waltz, was more conventionally performed than the first movement and the orchestra took the attention away from the conductor as they added their individual contributions. My ear was taken by the viola of Edward Vanderspar, Tim Hugh’s cello, Andrew Marriner’s clarinet and Tim Jones’s horn.

The Rondo-Burleske invited the brass to snarl, which they duly did. Rattle steered an energetic course and brought the movement to its magnificent feverish climax.

The final movement – slow, deliberate, exhausting – had the audience transfixed, some coughers apart. Rattle controlled the ending to perfection: we felt the composer’s breath fading away (Mahler never heard the work performed). I came away moved. A standing ovation said it all.

John Rhodes

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