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Another Review of Concert on 26 March 2011

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Mahler's 9th, by an amateur orchestra? They must be mad or have a delusional conductor, I thought. How could a rendition of this great symphony possibly stand comparison with my Barbirolli/Berlin Philharmonic recording and experience of live performances by the Bournemouth Symphony under Libor Pesek and Marin Alsop.

Well, I am delighted to report that with last Saturday's performance by the Winchester Symphony Orchestra my doubts were allayed. This vast symphony with its canvas, at times complex and at other moments with a chamber music-like quality was performed with much success and to enthusiastic acclaim by the WSO in its spring concert under its conductor Nicholas Wilks.

Much has been written about this symphony, Mahler's last completed one, and its meaning, particularly the sublime last movement. Written at a time of intense personal crisis and following a diagnosis of heart disease it is often said that this work is Mahler's farewell, perhaps the equivalent of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony. But Mahler's whole life had been spent living with tragedy, including the deaths of young siblings and the death of his own daughter, and indeed this symphony was followed by the unfinished 10th so perhaps the last movement is not about death. From its opening yearning bars this symphony is surely a huge affirmation of life but with reminders that tragedy is never far away but not overwhelming or dominating. The WSO's performance brought those qualities to the fore.

The tenderness of the opening Andante Comodo was finely realised as were the mercurial changes of mood, tempo and key-opening in D major, then D minor and ultimately B flat major. At times Mahler rages against the cruelty and injustice that life metes out. Considerable virtuosity is needed for these passages but it was clear that the orchestra had been meticulously prepared and it rose to the challenges required of it.

In the second movement of biting and sardonic wit the changes between the Landler and the central waltz section were well handled. Mahler requires this movement to be played roughly and clumsily, gradually becoming distorted and grotesque. Here the essential "Mahler sound" was never lacking.

Similarly the turbulent Rondo Burlesk was played with great energy and skill. Mahler marks the score "very defiant" and, as so often with Mahler, virtually manic-depressive mood swings with sudden changes of tempo and dynamic markings need careful handling to prevent the music from becoming completely derailed. Mahler makes huge demands on his orchestra, indeed the trumpets are cruelly tested here but the transitions to feelings of despair and resignation were handled most assuredly.

Yet it was in the opening adagio to the last movement where the orchestra showed its quality most of all. The warmth and weight of the string sound was most impressive. The opening to this movement always reminds me of the opening to the last movement of the third symphony (“What love tells me”) but whereas the third ends in a blaze of glory, light conquering darkness, the Ninth ends in peaceful resignation - letting go. On the way, despite the large orchestra there are moments with just a few players as though in a chamber ensemble. Here I single out the string soloists in each section and also the flute, cor anglais and harp, whose delicacy and tenderness were most moving.

And so to the closing bars. Sustaining such a pianissimo requires great skill and both conductor and orchestra ensured that these moments ended with, as the programme note says, a glimmer of hope. This was not a mournful or depressing ending but one for quiet contemplation and a feeling of beauty triumphing over adversity.

Throughout, Nicholas Wilks's beat was clear, as were all his other directions and much of the success of this performance is thanks to him, though that is not to detract from the skill and dedication of the players. Nicholas Wilks chose to have the second violins on his right with violas and cellos centre stage. This is an arrangement favoured by, amongst others, Claudio Abbado and Leonard Bernstein. It makes each violin section a first among equals and it worked perfectly in last night's performance. It did, however, give extra exposure to the violas where a greater weight of sound would have been ideal.

It would stretch credulity to say this was a perfect performance. There was the occasional wobbly moment in exposed patches, the occasional note fluffed in brass and woodwind and some viola moments not totally in tune.

It seems churlish to make these criticisms, however, in what was a great achievement for the entire orchestra and conductor and one of which they can feel justly proud. Mahler was afraid that after his death other conductors would not be able to conduct his music properly. He worried too much.

Peter Stone

Last Updated on Tuesday, 05 April 2011 12:31

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