RCM Symphony Orchestra/Salonen – Mahler 9

Symphony No.9

RCM Symphony Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 19 June, 2009
Venue: Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingThis concert, and its repeat, form part of the opening concerts of the Royal College of Music’s sumptuous refurbishment of its concert hall – now renamed after one of its most distinguished alumnae, Amaryllis Fleming – with noiseless air conditioning, soundproofing and atmospheric lighting. Of course, all of that can go to nought, if the sound isn’t good, so it’s good to report that it is excellent. Indeed the RCM may have the warmest acoustic in London.

Certainly the RCM Symphony Orchestra under College-debutant Esa-Pekka Salonen (replacing Bernard Haitink who is recovering from a back operation) revelled in the sonorous depth of the acoustic. The string ensemble achieved such a full-bloodied, yet rounded integration like I’ve not heard in London before, creating a sonic base that such massive works by Mahler demand. Coupled with extraordinarily accomplished solo work from winds and brasses, Salonen was able to marshal a thoroughly convincing rendition of the Ninth Symphony that eradicated once and for all the misguided notion that this is ‘a farewell to life”.

As Henry Louis de La Grange elucidates in the fourth and final volume of his comprehensive Mahler biography, “A New Life Cut Short” (Oxford University Press, 2007) contrary to the glib common view, despite the tragedies of 1907, Mahler was keen to make a new life, principally in New York. Indeed the very fact that he had completed in short score the whole of his Tenth Symphony is evidence enough (one hopes that Salonen will follow Chailly, Harding, Rattle and other conductors and take up the Tenth, without which Mahler’s story is incomplete). Thus, Salonen doesn’t end the Ninth with a gradual dying away to the emotional equivalent of a black hole; rather he takes Professor Paul Banks’s final phrase of his typically lucid programme-note and allows the music to “fade away in a coda of fragile beauty.” Yes, there is a sense of resignation, but one of acceptance, not one of fear and death. Salonen played the emotional trajectory of the work perfectly.

With almost a too-vivid performance to take in at one go (the second one is welcome), Salonen trumped his Philharmonia Orchestra performance in the Royal Festival Hall in March. This RCM account was direct and urgent that equated to the 75-minute duration of the revised International Gustav Mahler-Gesellschaft edition; certainly it would have fit happily on a compact disc (such as from Barbirolli or Bruno Walter), and the performances are being recorded, the final movement a shade over 20 minutes rather than a little under the more-usual 30 minutes.

Despite the extraordinary sonic force (it was like being met with a physical wall of sound), there was, for the most part, an admiral clarity to the instrumental balance, the tangible presence of music making, as if seeping through every pore of your body. Mahler has never been more visceral and all-encompassing. Salonen’s debut at the RCM, and the enthusiasm that the student musicians showed him, will live long in the memory. Hopefully Salonen will find time to return – both soon and often.

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