United Kingdom Pärt, Mahler: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 27.4.2014 (SRT)
Pärt: Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten
Mahler: Symphony No. 9
I’ve complained before about the small number of concerts that the BBC SSO do in Edinburgh (this year it’s only two outside of festival time, though next year they’re upping it to three), but I can’t complain about their quality. Both the Mozart Requiem and tonight’s concert are centred around themes of mortality and leave-taking, and tonight’s programme was an inspired coupling of Pärt’s Cantus and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.
The hypnotic circling of the Cantus served as a very moving and strangely appropriate curtain-raiser to the symphony and, in a surprisingly effective idea, the symphony followed it without a break and with no applause. Consequently, the warm, intense string sound that ended the Cantus transferred over beautifully into the D major opening of the symphony.
Listening to the great expanse of this extraordinary first movement, which Berg believed was the finest thing that Mahler ever wrote, you can’t avoid the truth that this is a symphony about death and farewell, and the power of the climaxes is stunning at times. The two great landmarks in Runnicles’ reading came when the timpani thundered out that four-note phrase that you first hear on the harp in the opening bars. Those doom-laden pinnacles seemed to be the inexorable climax of the music that lay before it and, more importantly, they cast a chilling shadow over the music that came afterwards: the shadowy cellos at the start of the development, for example, or the funeral march that follows the second, more furious collapse. I was hugely impressed by how everyone in the BBC SSO really attacked that music, bringing biting clarity to a passage that can feel somewhat broken and leaden at times. However, the thing that struck me most about the Andante was the recognition that, while death’s spectre looms large, the music is also about the determination not to be beaten by it. The first entry of the first violins, for example, was radiantly sunny. The horn and flute solos in the coda were a poignant looking back but they were not crushed, and the solo violin, while full of emotion, refused to stop smiling.
The Ländler was swaggering but still precise, while giving a fitting feeling of teetering on the verge of chaos, while the Rondo was biting and savage but also very well defined. The finale, though, was characterised by a lush warmth to the string sound, underpinned by glowing horns that made the sumptuous main theme all the more radiant, and the requiem of the winds towards the end of the movement was also very moving. Great as was the playing, the thing that struck me the most about this most moving of Mahler’s creations was Runnicles’ refusal to linger unduly. This finale never wallowed in sentimentality but instead was a stoical leave-taking, a farewell that was passionate but accepting and all the more affecting for that.