Simon Rattle and the LSO Astonishes Edinburgh with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2018 [7] – Mahler: London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 11.8.2018 (GT)

Mahler – Symphony No.9

The second and last programme given here in Edinburgh by the LSO under their Music Director Sir Simon Rattle comprised a single work, Mahler’s last completed symphony, the Ninth. Sir Simon has of course developed much of his reputation through performing Mahler from his early days working as an assistant at the BBC SSO in the early seventies, and performed the complete cycle with the CBSO during his years in Birmingham, and has recorded the Ninth twice with different orchestras. The Ninth Symphony forms the second part in a trilogy including Das Lied von der Erde, and the incomplete Tenth Symphony which was Mahler’s farewell to this world.

The great opening Andante comodo began on the low strings and rather sentimental sounding, with prominence given to the divided violins with the second violins placed on the right allowing an effective sound quality. Quickly the pace switched to an exhilarating passage and a thrilling climax with the whole orchestra playing out of their skins. There was a degree of heightened emotion – perhaps excessively so – and yet the playing was quite sublime, with the transfer between ensemble groups in the sections marvellously well handled. From bars 5-6, there arises a theme as if a great beast is at slumber and about to awaken, and dissolves into something poignant and not without a trace of irony. There was some wonderful characterisation from the flute of Gareth Davies, the clarinet of Andrew Marriner and the first violin of Giovanni Guzzo conspicuously. In the second movement, again prominence was given to the outstanding second violins with the colourful rustic ländler, and with so much beauty and joy in this music there arises the idea that this symphony was not conceived by a man about to meet his death, so full of life is in the writing.

This is verified by Mahler’s biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange writing that Mahler was then only 49, in good health, and fully intended to complete his Tenth Symphony the following year. Alban Berg who was at its premiere, amplified this view, ‘it expresses an extraordinary love of this earth, for Nature; the longing to live on it in peace, to enjoy it completely, to the very heart of one’s being, before death comes, as irresistibly it does.’ This love for life was typified by the great Rondo-Burleske with its bursts of excitingly dramatic tension and conveyed at a brisk tempo matched by stunning playing throughout the orchestra. Following the great cymbal crash, the idiom was transformed with a woeful idea on the trumpet of Philip Cobb; this was quite spectacular in its power, followed by world-class virtuosity from the full orchestra playing at a brisk tempo.  It was so fast one almost thought it would all fall apart, but not this orchestra, they were playing out superbly with feeling for this glorious music.

A brief break was needed for both musicians and audience in between each movement, simply to grasp what had just been heard, and to sense what was about to come. In the Adagio – with its wonderful theme which sounds to me as if one is returning home after a long journey – there was a warmth of feeling which was only matched by the second idea which is as if the composer is carrying all the worries of the world on his shoulders. It is this moving threnody to life which brings the playing to the very edge of technique; then again the woodwind opened another page in the narrative, here the playing touched that greatness one hears only rarely, and now we hear in the music an acceptance of fate by the composer. Slowly, ever so gently, on the violins, and violas and cellos, the music comes to a stop as if all life has died. As the strings ever so softly brought this magnificent symphony to a close, there reigned complete silence in the hall until a tremendous roar of applause arose to celebrate this magnificent performance. This was a triumph for the conductor, and for his superbly gifted LSO musicians, and indeed for the 2018 Edinburgh International Festival. This was a concert about which many will be still talking in years to come.

Gregor Tassie

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