PROM 24: Donald Runnicles Leads an Eloquent Mahler Ninth at the Proms 

United KingdomUnited Kingdom PROM 24: Vaughan Williams and Mahler, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 4.8.2014. (JPr)

Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
 Mahler – Symphony No.9

On a leisurely bus ride to the Royal Albert Hall I had the ‘pleasure’ of a posh Home Counties voice informing her two American friends – and most of the rest of us around her – about all the important landmarks along the journey. One example is enough – at Hyde Park Corner she pointed out how Apsley House belonged to the Duke of Wellington. Her companions said nothing and I suspected they had no idea who he was … and this was proved right when I eventually heard the comment ‘He’s the one married to the Queen isn’t he?’ That he was the victor at Waterloo still meant nothing and the American visitors were more excited by the casino they saw a little further on. Where were they going on what turned out to be their last night in London? Of course, to this Prom to hear Mahler’s Ninth, a work that was inspired by the composer’s own sojourn in the US.

It was one of those days! I sat down on my stalls seat inside only for three people next to me to get out some glasses and work their way through a number of half bottles of champagne during the music as if it was Proms in the Park, Henley or Glyndebourne! Two elderly concertgoers sat behind me and before opening their programme discussed which composer they might hear first, one replied ‘I suppose it will be in alphabetical order and the Mahler will be first’.

I often suspect the Proms gets a proportion of the audience it deserves but mentioning the (printed) programme, those who are actually there continue to deserve a lot better from what the BBC produces … and I have written about this for years. Year after year, the BBC continues to reprint material that mostly requires a music degree to understand – even if it is by people who, I accept, have probably forgotten more about music than I ever knew. However, this concert was an occasion when the audience could have had the opportunity to read something that actually gave them some important background to what they were hearing. Especially since there was a card on every seat reminding us that ‘At 11pm on 4th August 2014, 100 years ago, Britain entered the First World War as its ultimatum to Germany expired’ and how this was one of two concerts conceived to mark this centenary. Nowhere in the rehashed programme notes about Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was the classic hymn ‘Abide with Me’ mentioned (that is referenced in the final movement): it should have been because it was often sung in the trenches in WWI!I suspect those listening on radio were told this but why was it not spelt out for those spending £4 on a programme?

So now for the information those in the Royal Albert Hall should have read and a little of rehashing of my own. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was composed in 1909 and 1910, and was the last symphony that he completed. Having recently learned of his wife Alma’s infidelity Mahler was suffering a deep personal crisis and this symphony is considered to be the most intense, self-pitying – possibly neurotic – of his symphonic works. Although it has the traditional number of four movements, more unusually, the first and last are slow rather than fast.

The work opens with a hesitant, syncopated motif, which some commentators – most notably Leonard Bernstein – have suggested represents in music Mahler’s irregular heartbeat, and which returns at the height of the movement’s development as a sudden intrusion of ‘death in the midst of life’, announced by trombones and marked in the score to be played ‘with the greatest force’. Moreover, the main theme also quotes – through three descending notes – the opening motif of Beethoven’s Les Adieux piano sonata. Les Adieux means ‘farewell’ and Mahler wrote that word at this point in the sketch for the music. Coincidentally, this piano sonata marked a turning point in Mahler’s early musical career as he performed Les Adieux during his graduation recital in college.

The second movement is a dance, a Ländler, but it has been distorted to the point that it no longer resembles a dance. It is reminiscent of the second movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in the distortion of a traditional dance into a danse macabre – a ‘dance of death’. The third movement, in the form of a Rondo, displays the final maturing of Mahler’s skills in using counterpoint. It opens with a dissonant theme in the trumpet which is treated in the form of a double fugue. The addition of Burleske (a parody with imitations) to the title of the movement refers to the mixture of dissonance with the Baroque counterpoint with which we are familiar from Bach. The autograph score is marked ‘to my brothers in Apollo’ and the movement is no doubt intended as a sarcastic and withering response to the critics of his music at the time. Both these movements show how Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is on the cusp of late romanticism and early modernism — in particular the musical expressionism of Richard Strauss, early Schoenberg and Alban Berg whose own music was also haunted by death.

The final movement (marked zurückhaltend – literally meaning ‘reservedly’ – here more appropriately ‘very slowly and held back’), opens for strings only. As indicated above here we get some – clearly intentional – similarity in the opening theme to Abide with Me but most importantly there is a direct quote from the Rondo-Burleske‘s middle section, where it was mocked and derided: here it becomes an elegy. After several impassioned climaxes – involving some Wagner-inspired brass at one point – the movement increasingly fragments and the coda ends on a thread of sound, albeit affirmatively. On the closing pages, Mahler also quotes from his own Kindertotenlieder (‘The day is fine on yonder heights’) suggesting Mahler’s thoughts are somewhere beyond life. Bernstein speculated that this movement is symbolically prophesying three different kinds of death: Mahler’s own, the death of tonality, and ‘the death of our society, of our Faustian culture.’ None of the above did anyone read in the programme note about the Ninth Symphony available to the audience in the Royal Albert Hall!

Sometimes the first three movements can seem episodic and disjointed, and I actually suspect this is what Mahler intended but Donald Runnicles and his magnificent BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra opted for a more over-arching, organic reading in which all the episodes of grotesque revelry and passages of deep introspection seemed to be the natural consequence of each other, not just moments of fleeting reminiscences or a musical representation of Mahler’s neuroses. Maestro Runnicles, who is particularly associated with late-Romantic German repertoire, propounded quite persuasively that this is one of the most achingly beautiful – yet most mournful and sad – of all Mahler symphonies. It was a moving and emotionally-charged performance and as the textures thinned and the music stuttered to a halt – with Mahler wearily seeming to give up on life. Aat that moment it was not WWI that came into my mind but Lorin Maazel ,who died recently, who I recalled conducting one of the finest Mahler 9s I can remember in London in 2011 and sadness overwhelmed me … because such is the power of Mahler’s music played as wonderfully as this.

The short opening music by Vaughan Williams was his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis that seemed familiar as music used to accompany solemn occasions. It was described as ‘A queer, mad work by an odd fellow from Chelsea’ (misquoted in the programme note) by the organist of Gloucester Cathedral where it was premièred in 1910. It was not recorded until 1936 but has come to be appreciated as one of the crowning glories of English orchestral music with its innate gravitas not diminishing its popular appeal.

The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is time travel enacted in music and links the Tudors to age of the Edwardians when it was composed. It has been described as operating in space as well as time, as Vaughan Williams divides the string section into three blocks, usually a string quartet (here a septet at the back of the platform), an ensemble of 10 string instruments and all the rest, often playing against each other in call-and-response repetitions. There were virtuosic contributions particularly from the BBC SSO’s leader, Laura Samuel, and principal viola player, Scott Dickinson, and eloquent playing by all concerned. The work conjured up a serene, meditative atmosphere perfectively fitting a commemorative occasion such as this.

Jim Pritchard

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