Making Sense of a Chaotic Beast: Oundjian tames Mahler’s Third

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Susan Platts (mezzo), Ladies of the RSNO Chorus, RSNO Junior Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 2.6.2017. (SRT)

Mahler – Symphony No.3

Just last month, the RSNO announced that 2017-18 would be Peter Oundjian’s last season as Music Director, and this is the first concert he has conducted since. Next season he is conducting lots of blockbusters, culminating in Mahler 9 in a year’s time, a goodbye concert that makes for a slightly melodramatic farewell in that context! That was planned long before the announcement, of course, as was tonight’s choice of Mahler’s Third Symphony, but it makes for a suitably grandiose statement to both end the season and to take stock of where the orchestra currently is under Oundjian’s leadership.

The answer to that query is: very strong indeed. This was a Mahler 3 from a conductor who knew where he was going and had convinced the others on stage that his road map was correct. I haven’t always been Oundjian’s biggest fan, but the energy and edge of excitement that I sometimes find lacking in his performances was there for all to see tonight. His command of the eclectic first movement almost seemed to make this chaotic beast make sense, culminating in a euphoric central march which seemed to raise the roof. That same eclecticism was brought under control in the quirky Scherzo, where the shimmy into and out of the Posthorn solo – outstandingly played by principal trumpet, Chistopher Hart – felt controlled and, for once, coherent. The finale also retained its sense of beauty and mysticism, even in the coda when it turned into a march, and it’s a sign of how well Oundjian held the audience that, when he brought the players off at the end, there was a good twenty seconds of silence before any applause.

As for the orchestra, the colour and variety that so often distinguishes them felt more polished and sparkly than I’ve heard it in a very long time, and this is, after all, a work that both promotes and needs that sophistication. The juxtaposed blocks of sound that make up the first movement all shone with their own colour, and I loved the way the winds managed to hold their own through the mayhem, whether their bells were in the air or not. The second movement was dainty and the scherzo earthy, but this was only a curtain raiser for some extraordinary string playing in the last three movements, so carefully shaded and delicately balanced that at times I found myself trembling. The fourth movement seemed to open up a vast canyon of space in which the (slightly too warbly) mezzo sang, while the slow breath of the finale unfurled from the most alluring bed of violin sound I’ve heard in a long time.

It seems almost incidental to praise the singing of the choruses, who brought sunshine and a smile to the fifth movement, because this was, primarily, the orchestra’s triumph. And what was that at the very end except that rarest of Usher Hall compliments: a standing ovation! OK, maybe not from everyone, but, still: it’s Edinburgh, after all.

Simon Thompson

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