The LSO’s principal flute Gareth Davies made a heartfelt speech dedicating the concert to the victims of the atrocity of the previous night (and to the people of Manchester) pointing out that music often begins where words stop. Sadly, given the mass casualties, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, written sub specie mortis, after the composer had been diagnosed with what was then an incurable heart condition, was peculiarly appropriate.
Bernard Haitink must have conducted Mahler 9 many times, and with the LSO straining at the leash there was nothing routine about this account of it, the orchestra’s combination of collective power and aggression with individual players’ finesse and sensitivity serving the music especially well. Timbre is a difficult quality to describe but the sheer menace of the muted horns as the music hauls itself out of the pit in the backwash to one of the first movement’s great climaxes or the flute’s fade to near silence at the movement’s close reached the heart of the matter in a way which seldom happens.
Haitink conducted a memorable Mahler 9 at the Proms with the LSO in July 2009 marking his eightieth-birthday and the fiftieth-anniversary of his UK debut. Ten years later happily he is still with us, erect on the podium, and the outlines of his reading are as familiar as any of our great cultural landmarks. He still takes his time over the expansive opening movement, very much comodo, with concentration fully sustained and the enormous climaxes achieved a visceral power and intensity.
The middle movements felt more linked than is sometimes the case with the Ländler’s contrasting sections cannily paced but its rambunctious culmination and increases of speed and tension somehow leaning forward towards the succeeding ‘Rondo-Burleske’, in which, rather than Klemperer’s thundering anger, Haitink was at his most pugnacious. The bittersweet contrasting section is ushered in by a trumpet (excellently played by David Elton), after which the successive increases in speed were perfectly calibrated as the music hurtles to oblivion.
The slow and stoic Finale – a mere seventeen pages of score if with time suspended in the flesh – was everything it should be, string sound of astonishing richness, maximum intensity, secure horn-playing and above all that sense of Life hanging by a thread as the music reaches its dissolve, singing through the silences. It was a privilege to have been at this concert.