Edinburgh Festival (19): Royal Concertgebouw on Top Form in Mahler’s Ninth

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (19) – Mahler: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra /Daniele Gatti (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 30.8.2013 (SRT)


Daniele Gatti. Photo by Abramovitz
Daniele Gatti. Photo by Abramovitz

Mahler: Symphony No. 9

The classical programme of this year’s Edinburgh Festival has hit some definite heights, most obviously, for me, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s visit, together with Christian Gerhaher’s morning recital.  However, many of the Usher Hall evenings I have attended, while generally very strong, have left me with reservations.  And so I was particularly looking forward to this visit from one of the world’s very finest (if not the finest) orchestras playing a work that is central to their repertoire.  It may not quite have hit the heights, but nevertheless I wasn’t disappointed.

The sheer quality of the playing on offer was exceptional, and it was only with the Bavarians that I have heard anything comparable this festival.  The Concertgebouw is a Rolls Royce outfit, a crack orchestral team if ever there was one, and that was evident from the playing of every shimmering, pristine section.  The violins, for example, had a special gleam on them, particularly evident when the firsts entered in the first theme of the great Andante comodo, ripe with meaning and full of potential, all the more poignant for the fact that it is snuffed out by a D minor theme of such turbulence and anger.  The violas and cellos were every bit as compelling, underpinning the sound with velvety richness that most other orchestras would kill for.  The strings sounded lyrical and soaring in the first movement, but they weren’t afraid to sound thick and heavy for the clunky Ländler of the second movement, particularly the second theme which seemed to harrumph its way through the music with a heavy ungainliness that seemed almost destructive.

The brass were every bit as fine, and I loved the way the trombones and tubas weren’t afraid to play subtly as well as storming through the climaxes.  The solo trumpet in the Rondo was so ethereal as to appear almost disconnected from reality, while the principal horn produced playing so beautiful that he surely deserves a place in Valhalla.  The winds were sensational too, and I loved the way they weren’t afraid to make a blatantly ugly sound, something they did to great effect in both middle movements.

I wasn’t at all taken with Daniele Gatti’s reading of Mahler’s Seventh symphony last year, but I found him more compelling here.  Impressively, he conducted the whole symphony without a score and he was at his finest in the third movement, shaping it with savagery and bite.  For me he didn’t quite manage to encompass the breadth of the emotive power of the outer movements.  I particularly wanted more of a sense of encroaching entropy in the first movement.  For me it sounded too controlled, even after the great climax towards the end, so that you never felt that enough of a risk was being ventured: this music was daring but ultimately safe.  I also wasn’t quite swept away by the finale, despite the almost overwhelming breadth of the main string theme – it felt more like listening to Mahler’s great heartsong from an objective distance rather than being swept up in an uncontrollable wave.  However, he shaped the ending very impressively indeed, with the music quivering on the border of silence in a way that made you lean in to catch every phrase, and the final pages, with their astoundingly subtle strings and their delicately graded decline into nothingness, created a powerful impression that will live with me for a very long time.

Simon Thompson