The connection between these two works, bookending the Romantic era, might seem puzzling, but they are steeped in psychological conceptions. Mahler began the Tenth Symphony (left unfinished) parallel to seeking advice from Sigmund Freud about his troubled marriage. His emotional struggles are projected with overwhelming force in the opening Adagio. The basis of Symphonie fantastique is even more psychologically based, riddled with effects which vividly describe a distraught lover’s drug-induced visions and fuelled by Berlioz’s real-life obsessive attraction to the actress Harriet Smithson. Mahler, like so many composers, was influenced by Berlioz’s creative instrumentation, the latter being apparent during the Adagio, particularly the enormous chordal build up that produces a terrifying dissonance at the climax.
A successful account of the Tenth’s Adagio would not downplay its virtually demented passages. Gustavo Dudamel, however, was intent on smoothing over the thematic material (especially the angular second theme) and moderating dramatic power and intensity. Even the shocking climax was hurried through, its significance minimized; there was little anguish or heartbreak and the Vienna Philharmonic’s string-sound robbed the music of seething intensity and gut-wrenching emotion, yet the serene closing section, the most hopeful music in the movement, was sublime.
In the Berlioz, as in the Mahler, extremes were avoided. With sonorous strings it was the ‘country scene’ middle movement that was the most impressive, the English horn solos beautifully played by Clemens Horak. Leading up to it, the first movement’s Allegro was vital without sounding forced, and a well-paced second movement had the advantage of an orchestra steeped in waltzes. What was most disappointing was ‘March to the Scaffold’, smoothed-over and limp at times, although Dudamel did eventually find greater impulse. The ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ Finale was too rhythmically static at first, until Dudamel pressed forward to generate greater intensity, although the brass began to tire during the ‘Dies irae’ if ultimately finding enough resource; however, overall, Dudamel’s concentration on lyrical material at the expense of power and demonic character limited the effectiveness of the music. The encore was Josef Strauss’s Delirien-Walzer (Opus 212). The Vienna Philharmonic gave a splendid performance of music that begins in Wagnerian vein and soon exudes much charm and zest.