Opera + Classical Music Reviews

RPO/Gatti @ Royal Festival Hall, London

14 January 2009

Daniele Gatti drew a deeply felt performance of Mahler’s mentally exhausting 9th Symphony from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the top of their form.

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

A rapt audience were with him till the last gasp.

In the threadbare opening, the violas were so delicate and soft that they seemed to be at risk of melting into nothingness, but though fear and uncertainty creep into Mahler’s music, those two qualities never entered the performance. Gatti did well not to sand down the rough edges and ill-fitting joins of the piece, letting the brass and woodwind object to the placid strings with real sneering cynicism.

Mahler’s obsession seemed not to be about death alone, as most of the literature about the 9th Symphony suggests, but nostalgia and decaying hope, and how one can infect the other. The first movement illustrated this perfectly.

The second movement is almost entirely jovial, the orchestra lulling the listener into a false sense of security until there is a brief, unaccountable pause in the orchestra. It’s as if the music has overheard itself and has suddenly become self aware. From there on the chocolate-box innocence becomes more and more manic and fretful until previous melodies can’t sustain themselves; starting and stopping before they have a chance to blossom.

Mahler clearly wants to pull the rug from the audience’s feet, but to have something fiery come as a surprise, you have to have a lot of water beforehand. The third movement is, for me, the watery movement. However, it ends with ever more anxiety under the microscope, small, petty things magnified out of proportion like a colossal firefly, terrorising the neighbourhood.

In keeping with the largeness of the whole symphony, the final slow movement was like an enormous hug. All that stress and turmoil leads to a glorious, comforting end. But being Mahler, the embrace is more than slightly sinister; it lasts too long, he won’t let you go and he squeezes too tight. It became so graphic and heartbreaking, that the entire orchestra seemed to be narrating a tragic story very explicitly. As the harps entered there was a definite feeling of “it’s time to go” and the bassoons and flutes took one pitiful last look around before turning off the lights.

But after all the false endings comes the quietest and greatest music, practically inaudible, vapour instead of sound. I could hear the internal organs of everyone in the hall, the most otherworldly, extraordinary music with an odd reminder of the physical side of life, probably exactly what Mahler intended.

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