London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Trulove
Reviewed: 3 December, 2022
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Tis the season to be bronchial was amply demonstrated at the end of this account of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, its closing pages almost hijacked by audience members intent on coughing their way through one of the most magical endings to any Symphony, which splutters into life, on this occasion somewhat hesitantly, second violins (placed to the right) not quite delivering their initial entry with any sense of direction.
Under the watchful eye of Vladimir Jurowski any sense of Mahler’s faltering heartbeat supposedly embedded into those opening bars was swiftly followed by an unwavering sense of purpose, its broken phrases ultimately shaped into a sustained arch-like span. This account was less a farewell, and even less the “premonition of death” suggested by Alban Berg, more a life-affirming journey, propelled by seventy string-players (18/16/14/12/10), tensile rather than tender in their striving, warmth and beauty of tone traded for muscle. Despite dense layers, nothing sounded congested, Jurowski balancing baleful trombones and a gurgling bass clarinet with a sure sense of integrating their individual sonorities into a kaleidoscopic whole. And at the close what an affectionate embrace we had from solo clarinet, flute and violin, all three players bewitching in their musicianship. Detail, momentum and richness of sound were the guiding principles behind this movement (often claimed as Mahler’s finest single achievement), its emotional highs and lows also adeptly integrated into its architecture.
The intensity of the experience was undiminished by a short break (without applause) before the second movement was set in motion by bassoons and violas, second violins grimly determined rather than schwerfällig (ponderous). Tempos were well differentiated in the urban waltz and rustic Ländler, and if charm seemed in short supply there was a terrific sense of attack with crisply articulated rhythms and woodwind at their most sardonic, hysteria hinted at. No less fortifying was the ‘Rondo-Burleske’, variously clangourous, pugnacious and awash with nervous energy, its contrapuntal section imperiously thrown down like a gauntlet. The movement’s terrors found occasional relief in chamber passages, no more tellingly than the pre-echoes of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas from a trumpet.
Such defiance seeped into the final Adagio, Jurowski rejecting an expansive send-off or an unchallenged acceptance of death, preferring to interpret Mahler’s vision as of someone hanging on to life with fierce resolve. Strings were at their most radiant here, their song-like paragraphs admirably shaped, the whole crowned by a magnificent leave-taking marked by superb corporate thinking and totality of control that behoves a truly great orchestra. Even the coughers couldn’t quite dispel the dreamlike atmosphere, life transformed and of greater things to come. It was not quite a transformative experience, but it ran pretty close.