On Thursday evening, when Symphony Hall flung open its doors, Death came a-calling. He came in a number of guises, given voice by Brahms, Webern and Mahler and grappled with by the CBSO directed by Nicholas Collon.

Nicholas Collon © Jim Hinson
Nicholas Collon
© Jim Hinson

They were joined by the CBSO Youth Chorus for the Brahms, in whose quartet of songs death is located within texts drawn from Friedrich Ruperti, Shakespeare, Eichendorff and James Macpherson. Not simply located; ‘confined’ would be a better term, such is the extent to which Brahms avoids an active engagement with the bittersweet emphasis of the words. The first three songs instead project an entirely sweet demeanour, thereby causing an aesthetic friction impossible to resolve. Collon managed both to exacerbate and mitigate: the second fell particularly flat, rendered flabby due to an excessively slow tempo, while the third was mercifully saved from eternal tweeness thanks to a brisk lightness of delivery. Only the fourth song confronts the text’s prevailing melancholy, the chorus returning to desperate cries of “wein” (weep), but even here one was left feeling that while Brahms’ music carries the words, it hardly conveys them, and the only tears here were of the crocodile variety. No criticism can be laid at the feet of the CBSO Youth Chorus, who were simply doing as the composer had asked; as such, they were the epitome of a sugar-coated delicacy.

For Webern, Death came from two directions. First, from the passing-on of conventional tonality, Webern wrangling with how to position sounds both horizontally as well as vertically in a post-tonal environment. Already, the small-scale intimacy that would come to typify the composer is abundantly evident, each piece comprised of a seeming stream of consciousness, fleeting gestures momentarily fixed in place through equally ephemeral chords that don’t so much define harmony as resemble a wraith-like memory of it. This chamber version of the Six Pieces reduced the CBSO to an 11-piece ensemble, and it never ceases to amaze how Birmingham’s Symphony Hall can be transformed in works like this into an impossibly small space. This was reinforced by the players’ exceptionally intimate approach, Collon’s indications reduced to a bare minimum, to the point that frequently it seemed we had been granted access to a private performance. But not in the famous fourth movement, Death here emerging in what remains one of the most unsettling funeral marches ever composed. The deafening climax was simultaneously horrifying and miraculous, Webern’s channelling of grief at the death of his mother rendered with the starkest of instrumental and emotional clarity. Here was music that genuinely hurt, made all the more telling by its complete shift away from the quicksilver quality permeating the rest of the pieces.

But for all its power, it would be disingenuous to say it served as adequate preparation for the epic collision of love and death at the heart of Mahler’s posthumously-completed Tenth Symphony. No-one before or since has had more to say in a symphony than Mahler; he remains the most complex of symphonists, and this daunting prospect in itself may account for the large number of empty seats in the hall on this occasion. In many respects, the ‘performing version’ of this symphony created by Deryck Cooke demonstrates Mahler at the extremes of utterance, where everything is almost too much to express. The huge, searching line of the first movement immediately makes this clear, both through the horn countermelody that roams surprisingly far away from it as well as in the structural switches, interruptions and changes of mind typical of Mahler at the best of times. But also made immediately clear from the outset was Collon’s command of the terrain, with the concomitant sense of being carefully led through the symphony’s decidedly convoluted argument.

So often, Mahler can sound calculated, bolted together, even academic, yet here everything was fluid, convincing and, above all, heartfelt. In tandem with this was a demonstration of unity by the orchestra that was often downright amazing. Like a shape-shifting behemoth, the CBSO literally moved as one, from retreats into lilting, dance-like chamber passages through episodes of fantastically wild abandon to the (surprisingly few) tutti blasts of full-on emotional devastation. Yet, for all its slickness, the performance never lost sight of the fundamental inelegance at the heart of this symphony. From the pen of a composer not far from death who had recently discovered his beloved wife’s infidelity, a fatalistic doom understandably infects every moment of the music like a virus. In this respect, the Tenth Symphony is not there to be enjoyed so much as understood, and what we heard in Symphony Hall was an almost unbearably vivid account of what happens when the matter of love is pitted against the antimatter of betrayal and death. In the CBSO and Nicholas Collon’s hands the result was exhausting and unforgettable, a resonant, radiant annihilation.


This concert is available on the BBC's iPlayer until the end of April.