Edinburgh International Festival – Mahler 9

Symphony No.9

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 17 August, 2005
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

This was profoundly satisfying. It is always good to hear an orchestra playing at its very best – with power, precision and finesse. And with Jiří Bělohlávek at the helm, the symphony’s many interpretative challenges were met to a quite remarkable degree – this was one of the most coherent and stylistically conscious performances it has been my good fortune to hear: Mahler came first.

Given the antiphonal nature of much of the string writing, Bělohlávek had wisely (and uniquely in my experience of the Scottish National Orchestra) re-seated the second violins to the right with cellos centre-left and double basses to the left.

The very opening of the symphony gave a hint of things to come – slow, but sustained with an absolute certainty of tread. Indeed the first movement’s gigantic span was a masterpiece of integration, the score’s many changes of mood precisely observed, sometimes with real volatility and passion, but never so much as to disrupt its onward flow. Even in the backwashes of those gigantic climaxes, where the music hauls itself painfully and slowly out of the pit of despair, the thread was never lost and tension never sagged. There was an organic inevitability, so that by the movement’s close one had no sense of half-an-hour having elapsed. On a technical level Bělohlávek was particularly successful in getting the orchestra to observe precisely Mahler’s frequently differing, and concurrent, dynamic levels, and also in clarifying the pervasive 2 against 3 beat which gives the music much of its angst-ridden quality.

The second movement Ländler’s three base tempos were extraordinarily well-chosen, the first just slow enough to allow the second violins (marked to play “as fiddles”) to dig in with real rusticity, the second decisively faster (as marked), and the third ineffably tender. The joins between sections, with their subtle fluctuations, were especially well-handled, as was the movement’s dynamic climax, which more than usual looked forward to the succeeding ‘Rondo-Burleske’. And seldom has this movement’s thundering anger been more clearly articulated or its successive increases of tempo at the close more precisely calibrated. Special credit to the sensitive pp solo trumpet blending subtly with the cello’s tone just before the Rondo’s electrifying return; the sort of small detail which indicates the level of preparation.

Rightly, Bělohlávek allowed a long pause for the audience to settle before the Adagio finale. Any suspicion that the RSNO’s strings might not produce the requisite depth of sound was immediately laid to rest with sinewy power and depth of timbre. Too often, whatever its glories, this slow finale can sit oddly with the remainder of the symphony. On this occasion with an excellent first horn (David McClenaghan), overwhelming climaxes, and with full intensity sustained to the very last note, it seemed all of a piece with what had gone before – and the only possible conclusion. The protracted silence at the close spoke volumes.

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