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Review of Concert on 26 March 2011

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For an amateur orchestra to undertake the performance of any Mahler composition is an ambitious undertaking; to perform his Ninth Symphony, arguably the composer's greatest and most technically and interpretively difficult work might be thought to be too much of a challenge to meet. So it is to the huge credit of the WSO and conductor Nicholas Wilks that they not only accepted the challenge but gave a performance that was so powerfully communicative. To travel on a symphonic journey with Mahler is both physically and emotionally draining, particularly the deathly path he takes in his Ninth; unless the listener, and of course the orchestra, feels wrung dry as the final notes die away, the performance has failed. This performance did not fail.

The symphony starts with a gentle sigh, almost as though Mahler has felt the gentle alpine breezes brushing the pastures above Toblach where he wrote most of this symphony (it was completed in New York) but, this being Mahler, haunted as he was by the death of a beloved daughter and his own mortality, the idyll begins to disintegrate into pain and anguish, anger and despair, finally to end in tear-laden resignation as the movement comes to a close, so reminiscent of the Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde. The sense of concentration from the WSO as they guided us through this wonderful first movement was palpable. It is terrifyingly difficult to play and if there were times when the orchestra struggled with the technical demands this only helped to reinforce the composer's emotional uncertainties expressed in the music.

The second movement is not quite the emotional relief that the audience and the orchestra might have expected or demanded. It begins with a rustic ländler that might have been composed much earlier in Mahler's career but it soon gives way to a fast waltz that seems to whirl almost out of control. The movement finishes with another but slower ländler, becoming increasingly distorted and grotesque, the whole piece something of a dance of death. The WSO communicated this beautifully. The Rondo-Burleske that follows is quite extraordinary; it may be structurally and grammatically flawless but the sense to the listener must be of a man who is close to the edge, one moment shaking his fist in defiance, another moment flailing wildly in despair, yet other moments in nervous reflection: Mahler is not prepared to go gently into the good night. It is all preparation for the long final movement which many commentators have seen as a cathartic resolution, Mahler finally finding his way beyond death to the sunlit uplands of eternity. I'm not sure that I agree: it seems to these ears, as the music dissolves into silence, that Mahler has finally stoically accepted his fate. This was played very movingly by the WSO. Indeed, this last movement gave the WSO's strings their chance to sing and they did so, when the music demanded it, with extraordinary intensity and depth of tone. I congratulate them. And, while it would be invidious to choose individuals or orchestral sections for particular praise when the entire WSO played so well, if I choose to mention the very fine playing of the horns, both solo and in unison, the wonderfully characterful bassoons (what is the collective noun for bassoons?), and the beautifully poetic contributions of the solo oboist, it is only because they gave me particular pleasure.

Of course, in many ways the real hero, Mahler apart, was the conductor. Nicholas Wilks led his orchestra through the score with enormous aplomb. With a score that can fragment dangerously without clear direction, he found the line for each movement giving each a clear identity and, beyond that, giving the whole work an overarching cohesiveness that is by no means easy to achieve. Not for him the 'cool intellectualism' that Schoenberg saw in this symphony but instead red-blooded passion and raw emotion. This concert, I think, must mark a watershed in the orchestra's performing history. What will they play now? Wagner's Ring Cycle? Messaien's Turangalîla Symphony? If they do, I will be first in the queue to buy the tickets.

Tim Cawse

Last Updated on Tuesday, 05 April 2011 12:30

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