S&H Concert Review

Mahler: Symphony No 9, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, Barbican 28 October 2000 (MB)

I was once told that what Simon Rattle's performances lacked was individuality. This performance of Mahler's last completed - and greatest - symphony was one of the most original interpretations I have heard of the work - and one not dissimilar to his controversial recording of the symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Rattle seems to see this work as the most apocalyptic of the Mahler symphonies. It is an interpretation that does not easily seduce the ears and, at moments throughout this performance, I was quite unsettled by Rattle's astonishing portrait of a composer battling between the poles of despair and hope. Although the performance took almost 90 minutes, it was at times both the fastest and the slowest of interpretations that I can remember. It was also one of the loudest and one of the quietest of performances, with a range of dynamics that could either be ear-splitting or almost inaudible.

It is the first movement that is most controversial. I found it utterly compelling - and no more so than in how Rattle phrases the alternating melodies and songs of the second part of the movement. The first 'song' produced a ravishing horn solo, which was almost sepulchral before the G minor outbursts on trumpets and horns emerged like battle cries. The second 'song' produced astonishing purity of phrasing - a duet on solo violins, the cries of woodwind and the syncopated close of the section as it degenerated into a massive fff close - one almost cataclysmic in its violence. The following militaristic funeral march lumbered magnificently, and the closing coda was memorable for its solo violin and solo oboe as the movement died away on a still, calm ppp. I can't quite remember being so involved in a live performance of this opening movement as I was with Rattle's.

Both the Laendler and the Scherzo were extremely fine. If the second movement lacked some of the peasantry so entrenched in the dance rhythms of the laendler then the rondo waltz was at times grotesquely pedantic. Again, it was the contrasts which made this so compelling. Mahler marks the opening of the third movement 'Sehr trotzig' and this was exactly how Rattle played it. This was defiance with a capital D. This can be a very bitter movement in the right hands - and with the right orchestra - and the elements of sarcasm and defiance were magnificently contrasted in this performance of it. Before the double fugue has even had time to develop Mahler shifts the balance of this movement into a pre-visionary glimpse of the Adagio. Here Rattle made the jump superbly - but again at a tempo that was perhaps not ideal. The wild, triumphant coda, however, was just electrifying. It produced virulent playing, with the LSO engulfed in a vortex of virtuosity I don't think I will ever forget. The precision of ensemble at such a daunting pace was a tribute to an orchestra which has few, if any, peers for orchestral brilliance.

Rattle launched immediately into the Adagio. And what a performance he and the LSO gave of this subliminal movement. As with Kurt Masur's New York Philharmonic performance of this symphony at the Barbican in June, the string tone produced was ravishing. With violins divided left and right the opening two bars were antiphonally parted. The very first diminuendo was extraordinary, the expressiveness given to massed strings from bar 3 to the horn's first entry at bar 11 velvety in its tonal lustre. As for David Pyatt's solo - it was magnificent, with a beautiful pp that took the breath away.

Rattle pulled emotion out of the LSO strings throughout the entirety of this movement, but was simply fabulous at the Wieder Zuruckhaltend marking just before tempo I. Here first and second violins achieved a unity of phrasing, a dynamic fragmentation of these 10 notes that was staggering. These massed violinists played as a single player, each note given its f marking, until the first violins moved up to fff on note 7. The coda, which draws the movement to its pianissimo close, was as beautiful as any I have heard. Rattle held a capacity hall spellbound as a single cello drew the threads of ppp violins and violas to its dying close. For almost a minute he held his baton and hands aloft as total silence filled the Barbican.

I have heard many fine - even great - Mahler performances this year. This one found conductor and orchestra on inspired form. It would not surprise me if this performance acquired legendary status.

Marc Bridle

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