Phew. A hot Royal Albert Hall is not the place to be on such a clammy night, still less if the music programmed is a hundred minutes long with no interval! Small wonder, then, that programmes doubled as fans, and that one unfortunate Prommer fainted half way through, thankfully recovering shortly after.
Unfortunately it won’t have been the music that caused the poor fellow to expire – this was essentially a clean, over-polite interpretation of Mahler’s huge, all-embracing symphonic canvas. It became immediately apparent in the horns’ opening call that Franz Welser-Most was going for clarity and uniformity over raw emotion and rubato. It was thrilling to hear nine horns in unison with such admirable tone quality, but it was perfunctory in the extreme.
And so it continued, Welser-Most securing nice detail but at the extent of underplaying Mahler’s wildest symphonic first movement, ignoring the repeat into the bargain. Tempos were rigid, and yet the leader’s violin solos strained against them, whilst any signs of abandon from the unified lower strings were swiftly quelled. The conductor even stopped beating time in the slower music, shaping phrases with his hands almost imperceptibly. Offstage percussion effects were secured by the onstage players having to leave, which was very off-putting, and whilst ensemble was generally good you couldn’t help thinking the whole orchestra was in second gear.
Unfortunately the rot set in for the next two movements, a relatively charm-free Minuet and a confused Scherzando, admittedly with attention diverted during the drama in the audience but again lacking spark and charm until the offstage intervention of the posthorn, utilising the Albert Hall’s potential for such solos – this one coming from on high, towards the gallery.
Up stepped Yvonne Naef to redeem the situation somewhat, a foreboding hush brought to the start of the fourth movement, Mahler’s setting of Nietzsche. Here Welser-Most employed the dubious bird effect through the oboe, a performance device resurrected in recent times by Sir Simon Rattle. The Cleveland chorus were excellent in their role as angels for the following Wunderhorn song, although even here the heavenly host were not helped by earthbound accompaniment.
And so to the rapt majesty of the finale, but here also things were awry, a curious lack of tension between joy and anguish, meaning no resolution at the wonderful close. As the lengthy final chord sounded we had indeed been on a journey, but much of the scenery Mahler goes out of his way to provide had been washed clear of significant colouring and intensity. Oppressive heat or not, a distinctly lukewarm experience.