Pairing a symphony, Mahler’s 9th, which is perceived as the composer’s valedictory musical statement to life, with an orchestra, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, whose players are in the first blush of youth may initially seem incongruous. Surely they should be playing some brash, life-affirming work that’s chock-a-block with youthful exuberance?
No, not necessarily, but there were some serious reservations about the choice of repertoire in the lead up to this Prom but they proved to be unfounded. Whilst this performance of Mahler’s majestic symphony may have contained the occasional fluff here and there, the overall commitment, concentration and quality of playing from all the players was commendable.
They were fortunate to have one of the country’s finest conductors on the podium, and one whose experience of Mahler is second to none. You only need listen to Sir Mark Elder’s recording of this symphony with his Manchester forces, the Halle, to realise that the Austrian composer’s music is in his blood, whilst his grasp of the overarching structure of this mammoth work (around 1 hour and 20 minutes) was matchless. Elder certainly knows how to coax an orchestra into giving its all, and the intensive coaching period with the NYO players certainly paid off.
Elder’s tempo for the first movement was spot-on, it had due weight but never dragged, but although the all-important orchestral textures came over with a degree of clarity, it took a while for everything to come into focus. Blending the fragments of the main theme together is no mean feat, but Elder managed it here, building them up brick by brick until we reached the climax where the trombones’ angry declaration of the opening motif blazes in defiance at the prospect of approaching death. And given that there are eight of them (double brass and woodwind to accommodate all 164 musicians), the effect was shattering.
The temptation to luxuriate in Mahler’s rich orchestral palette was avoided, and the raw, earthy energy favoured here by Elder was mirrored by the alert playing of all sections of the orchestra.
There’s no let up in the Scherzo, as this is Mahler at his ugliest and most angular; sardonic woodwind and rasping horns add to the air of disquiet as the bucolic-sounding opening soon dissipates into something far more sinister. The agitated opening of the third movement was suitably abrasive and energetic, whilst the sense of foreboding only begins to dispel when we reach the more languid middle section of the Rondo-Burlesque, but it’s a false sense of security, as the opening theme returns, here played at almost fever pitch, particularly by the screaming woodwind and garish brass.