BBCSSO provide Guilty Pleasures in un-Hip Haydn and Kaleidoscopic Mahler

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Mahler: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 21.5.2017. (SRT)

Haydn – Symphony No.88 in G major Hob.I:88
Mahler – Symphony No.7

Haydn played on modern instruments is one of my guilty pleasures; something I feel I shouldn’t really admit to in this age of historically informed performance practice. I love the richness of the sound which, for me, more than makes up for the more transparent textures you get with smaller bands of 18th century instruments. It was in the BBCSSO strings I noticed the biggest benefits in this performance. They sounded serious in the slow introduction, then busy in the main allegro and beautifully alluring in the Largo, giving you an aural treat you don’t much tend to get in Haydn performances these days. Elsewhere, the brass and winds were just as fun, and Thomas Dausgaard was neatly plugged into all the symphony’s naughty humour, such as dialling up the trumpets’ and timpani’s surprise explosion in the slow movement, and shading down the rest of the orchestra in the Minuet so that the hurdy-gurdy humour of the violas could stand out over the melody.

Lovely as this performance was, however, it’s a mere curtain raiser for a work of the scale of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, though the openings of both symphonies share a pretty similar rhythm. The BBCSSO is steeped in solid Mahler technique thanks to its years with Donald Runnicles at the helm, and I’ve praised their Mahlerian chops to the skies elsewhere. Dausgaard has his own pedigree, however, and his recent Seattle recording of the Tenth Symphony garnered widespread critical plaudits, so the potential problems of the orchestral balance in an undeniably big sound were never really an issue, and the various solos (horn, violin, tenor horn) all sang out over the texture when they needed to. After a dark introduction the horns sounded as though they had been let off the leash when the main Allegro con fuoco section began, and the bounding energy from the strings underneath converted into something beautifully sweet with the second theme, so reminiscent of Alma’s tune from the Sixth Symphony.

Though the horns threatened to steal the show in the first Nachtmusik, they were anchored by rock solid support from the low strings, and the nocturnal mood extended into the third movement, which felt like a mischievous night-time jaunt rather than a dance of death. The second Nachtmusik sounded lovely, but was rather too restrained for my taste: this movement works better when you lay the schmaltz on thick, and civilizing it doesn’t really work. Still, much of that brilliant eclecticism was back for the schizophrenic finale, with the final pages dialling everything up to eleven for the final roar. How on earth can you square such ebullience with a marking of “ordinario”?!

Half the time I’m not convinced that this symphony itself knows where it’s going (and I sometimes wonder whether that’s deliberate), so it seems a bit harsh to judge Dausgaard for lacking a sense of direction.  I’ve still never heard anything to dissuade me from the idea that this is the least coherent of Mahler’s symphonies, though it wins me over every time I stop looking for the thread and enjoy it as a vibrant kaleidoscope.

Simon Thompson

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