Symphony No.6 in A minor
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 6 February, 2007
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
Although Mahler symphonies are an everyday part of concert life – and arguably being programmed to death – this account of the Sixth Symphony stood out for at least three reasons: it was to be played by a “non-professional” orchestra (and Mahler’s challenges are immense); the location of St John’s is on the small size and the inverse of the large forces Mahler requests; and Robin O’Neill (principal bassoon in the Philharmonia Orchestra and enjoying a burgeoning conducting career) is a somewhat unknown quantity as a Mahler interpreter.
The first thing to say is that the concert was a resounding success. The orchestra’s response was assured and musical, and while there were occasional ‘accidents’, the only real ‘sour spot’ came from the (not antiphonal) violins during the slow movement in which one passage found tuning and articulation uncertain; that it stood out said much for the excellence elsewhere. One could also quibble that the middle movements were played in the ‘wrong’ order – O’Neill opted for the scherzo second – and that the third hammer-blow in the finale really should be included given that Mahler’s rejection of it seems to have been entirely superstitious. Regarding the order of the middle movements, although Mahler seems to have been undecided at the time of publication, it seems certain, so the latest research reports, that in the performances he himself conducted, Mahler chose the Andante moderato as the second movement (although Anthony Burton, in his updated note, stated that in the last renditions Mahler led the scherzo was second).
Nevertheless, after the triumphal conclusion of the first movement – made explicit in this Salomon performance – there is a real need to ‘arrive’ in the ethereal realms that the Andante provides and then be brought down to earth, again, by the scherzo and then proceed attacca into the epic finale. That this trajectory wasn’t followed here is really quite incidental as the account that O’Neill conducted had its own, very convincing logic. Even in the first movement. The most persuasive accounts of this tend to favour Mahler’s ma non troppo tempo qualification and, in doing so, conjure the image of a weary traveller loaded down with a heavy backpack battling against the elements. Not so here. O’Neill went with Allegro energico. Yet, if no faster than Bernstein and Karajan (in their recordings), and allowing that the energico aspect could be more about determination than speed, O’Neill was more convincing than either conductor was. This first movement had fire and direct communication; in addition balance was excellent and detail was vivid. The large orchestra, filling into some of the space normally occupied by an audience (St John’s was brimful of musicians and listeners!), filled the acoustic space with finely honed sound, the only miscalculation being the cow-bells, which despite being played from the back of the platform and behind a curtain, were not distant enough to suggest, as they surely do, the paradise that the ‘hero’ seeks (and reaches in the slow movement).
In both the scherzo and slow movement, O’Neill found the tempo giusto. If some of the sinister moments in the former overly suggested ‘look out behind you’ (engaging music-making nonetheless), then the Andante was beautifully done, genuinely heartfelt and emotionally outpouring.
The finale, too, was unerringly charted; again, something more implacable can be especially telling (such as Horenstein’s approach, for example), but O’Neill and his committed players modulated the movement with great skill. The (two) hammer-blows were from large mallet and wood (the sound Mahler prescribes) but could have been more stomach-churning in impact and the (orchestral) waves generated more ‘shocked’.
The closing bars, with some very sensitive brass-playing, was suitably doom-laden and ‘final’ – until O’Neill (a fine conductor with a clear beat and, here, a convinced and convincing viewpoint of the music) coiled himself like a spring and unleashed a devastatingly unanimous trump card in the form of a crushing fortissimo that seemed to be the symphony’s direction all along. The silence that ensued was also compelling. A memorable performance.