Prom 56: LSO/Rattle Mahler 9

Francis Poulenc
Figure humaine

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No.9 in D

BBC Singers

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 27 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Not the first concert to be marketed as Sir Simon’s farewell to the LSO (nor, one suspects, quite the last) but a memorable occasion all the same, given before a raptly attentive full house. There was only one intrusive mobile phone contribution and a single protracted round of coughing in the 80 minutes of the Mahler. The Ninth’s closing gestures of dissolution have made the piece as a whole seem like a deliberate parting shot though we can only really say that it was the last of Mahler’s completed works to be set before the public.

First though tonight came Poulenc’s secular cantata of protest, newly totemic for this conductor in the wake of the proposed axing of the BBC Singers. The music was intended for a much bigger ensemble than the 24 tonight – even the 84 mustered when an earlier manifestation of the BBC Singers premiered the score in 1945 was something of a compromise with members of the Variety Chorus ‘hardly used to this kind of music’ (as BBC producer Edward Lockspeiser remarked) having to be brought in. Poulenc is said to have had as many as 200 voices in his mind’s ear. Oddly enough his composition was not sung at the Proms until twenty years later when John Alldis conducted his own choir in the second half of an all-French concert which finished with two movements from Messiaen’s La nativité du Seigneur. The first half’s orchestral fare, including Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, was assigned to Norman Del Mar and the Royal Philharmonic!  This was the BBC Singers’ third Proms account and inevitably the one with the highest profile. In the Barbican last April and very much at the eleventh hour, Rattle had paired the Singers’ Poulenc with the LSO’s Mahler (the Seventh Symphony) as a gesture of solidarity. Chaotic arts cuts are the most obvious if indirect legacy of Nadine Dorries’s time in government. This time there was no speechifying after a realisation remarkable for its technical finesse, clarity and range. The texts by Poulenc’s friend Paul Éluard are surrealistic but accessible enough to have become associated with the French Resistance, particularly the poem ‘Liberté’ which closes the cycle on a ringing not quite impossible high E. I don’t know whether the work was one the conductor knew well prior to the threat to the BBC Singers but he used a score and shared the applause with someone I assume from afar was the groups’s embattled chief conductor Sofi Jeannin.

Printed matter was not in evidence after the interval and it goes without saying that few if any contemporary conductors know their Mahler ‘better’. With tonight’s concert Rattle took his place alongside those who have directed the Ninth more than once at the Proms: Bernard Haitink (in 1970 and 2009) and Pierre Boulez (in 1971 and 1975). Sir Simon’s own previous account was with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1991. At the Royal Albert Hall he has also conducted the First (1987 and 2010), Second (1999 and 2022), Fifth (1997), Sixth (1984 and 1995), Seventh (1989 and 2016), Eighth (2002) and ‘Tenth’ symphonies – both the ‘Adagio’ alone (1994) and Deryck Cooke’s five-movement performing version (1982). There are already three commercial recordings of Sir Simon conducting the Ninth in Vienna, Berlin and Munich though not I think, for whatever reason, in Birmingham. Tonight’s account was certainly more controlled than the first of those, very much a young man’s view, challenging in a different way.

The performance, in many ways an appropriate end point for Rattle’s LSO tenure, reflected many of his current preoccupations. Antiphonally placed violins remain a thing for him and are certainly important in this piece. Notwithstanding this element of ‘authenticity’, the first movement was seen very much from the modernist end of the telescope, its emotional life secondary to the exposure of antic elements (harmonic and colouristic) that (whisper it quietly) might even have been smoothed away or ameliorated somewhat had the composer lived to conduct and revise the score. The strings as a whole majored on leanness and transparency, their slides never sentimental or Romantic, while the horns made Berio-ish noises. The conception followed a pattern set by last year’s Proms Resurrection, a slow-burn Rattle reading of comparable technical excellence, similarly reluctant to trade on older stereotypes of Late Romanticism. 

The Ninth’s second movement was superbly achieved yet so anti-bucolic, so remorseless in its ironizing of the material that there was arguably too little for the parodies to play ‘against’. The undeniably forward-looking and urban Rondo-Burleske responded superbly to Rattle’s approach, as might have been expected. More surprisingly perhaps the launch of the final Adagio, arriving without much pause, found the strings at last allowed a richly upholstered timbre. Going forward their sound was as sustained as it had been fractured in the first movement, winding down to silence at the close. That silence was well-maintained too. Then came ecstatic acclaim for a towering achievement achieved in part by dismantling received ideas about warmth, blend, style, spirituality and naturalness. While the music was no longer noticeably Judaic or Viennese, was that perhaps the point? Mahler made uncomfortable again, not easy listening but brilliant and new and belonging to us all. Following hard on the heels of a disappointing Boston Symphony Orchestra date, I should add that the playing of the LSO was genuinely world-class.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content