WPO play Mahler 9 – 4th May

Symphony No.9

Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Butcher

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 May, 2002
Venue: St John’s, Waterloo, London

Mahler’s last completed opus is a challenge for great and good symphony orchestras; for an amateur ensemble, Mahler’s exposed, sustained and emotional writing makes for a very particular responsibility.

In the pleasant ambience of St John’s warm and detailed acoustic, the members of the Westminster Philharmonic rose dedicatedly to Mahler’s demands. Jonathan Butcher has a long association with the WPO; his alert and receptive conducting of Mahler 9 really connected to his players. While there was, not unreasonably, some dubious tuning, a few false entries and the odd mishap along the way, the orchestra had been very well rehearsed.

As an overall reading, Butcher went for directness and clarity. His unfurling of the long first movement was impressive, an ’Andante commodo’ that was forward moving and suitably accommodating of expression, contouring to catharsis expertly, if sometimes steering too ambivalent a course – the passage two-thirds through tinged by funereal tubular bells seemed insignificant; other sections had an impassioned if slightly pressing edge.

Towards the end of this movement there was some especially fine playing from horn (Adrian Wheeler) and flute (Judith Jerome), to which can be added Allan Robinson’s trumpet solos in the ethereal middle of the ’Rondo-Burleske’, its outer parts made stoical within the bounds of the players’ abilities, one that caught Mahler’s Expressionist gambit if not always the ferocity. Such detachment seriously undermined the Ländler second movement, which was matter-of-fact, uninflected, with little made of the coarser contrasts Mahler introduces. More vivid characterisation came later, but the coda’s irony was lost.

The concluding ’Adagio’, without lacking intensity, flowed along after a slightly impatient opening, the cloistered episodes bit-by-bit holding sway against hymnal threnody. Butcher rallied his players to a particularly splendid redemptive climax, and the final dissolution was very sensitively handled and held the audience. The fading light through the church windows seemed especially apt.

Butcher’s swiftness with the ’Finale’, allowing the music to turn inward surreptitiously, reminded me of Bruno Maderna’s way with the music. Butcher’s undeviating traversal also suggested Bruno Walter’s famed live Vienna performance from 1938 now preserved on several CDs; Butcher’s interpretation was the antithesis of grandiloquence and glossy power, and none the worse for that.

Thirty years old, the WPO has tackled Ravel’s Daphnis, Bartók’s Mandarin and Bluebeard, The Rite of Spring, Shostakovich 11, Tippett, and Anthony Payne’s ’Elgar 3’. Let’s see what next season brings.

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