Some sections of the Prague Symphony Orchestra coped better than others with Cadogan Hall’s wraparound intimacy. Mahler’s cosmic paean to nature, love and life itself is not only the longest repertory symphony of them all (this performance clocked in at 104 minutes), it is also vast in scale. With platform extensions that ate up several rows of audience space and with the two choirs placed antiphonally in the left and right balconies, it was a sight to behold. To listen to, not so much.

Pietari Inkinen conducts the Prague Symphony Orchestra © Jan Slavík
Pietari Inkinen conducts the Prague Symphony Orchestra
© Jan Slavík

At such proximity, the musical material struggled to coalesce despite the clear architectural vision of its conductor. The rise of Pietari Inkinen has been inexorable and will reach a zenith next summer when he leads the inaugural season of Bayreuth’s new Ring cycle, while last night, in addition to the swathes of Wagner he has under his belt, the youthful Finn showed a flair for Mahler. One day it will be thrilling to hear him conduct the Third Symphony with a top-flight orchestra in a state-of-the-art concert venue; for now, though, this flawed experience must serve as a glimpse of what may be.

Poor balance, even heard from a prime balcony seat, was a constant problem and did no favours to brass or wind sections whose principal soloists inadvertently tore holes in the music’s fabric. I suspect more could have been done to attenuate the impact, but it meant that neither the solo trumpet nor the first trombone was a pleasure to hear while the principal horn player provided a distraction from the ordinariness of her eight-strong section.

The orchestra’s glory was its massed strings, a tight, talented contingent that brought lustre to Mahler’s ineffable finale. What an overwhelming movement this is, replete with allusions to the “Abendsegen” from Hänsel und Gretel (unconscious? Mahler was known to be studying Humperdinck’s new score at the time of composition) that lend their soul to the most aching Adagio even this composer ever wrote. And how superbly Inkinen shaped it, like a 25-minute Dresden Amen.

The opening movement of this palindromic symphony is a mighty edifice that Mahler originally called “Pan awakes; summer marches in”. As a précis of all its clamour and ferment that’s an understatement. A cautious Inkinen did not quite capture the music’s restless churn at the 15-minute point; perhaps he was keeping some powder dry for what was to come, because he went hell for leather later on.

The contrast between these extremes and the chamber-like minuet that followed was well traced but neither the ensuing Scherzando nor the Misterioso fourth movement hit the magic button – the former because Marek Zvolánek’s offstage solo was (a) insufficiently distant and (b) sounded completely wrong played on a trumpet instead of a posthorn or at the very least a flugelhorn; the latter because Ester Pavlů’s unshrouded young mezzo-soprano voice carried no weight or sense of mystery at all. In Wagnerian terms her sound was closer to Fricka than to Erda. The cheeky “Bimm bamm” fifth movement, though, shone as brightly as a night star when the choristers of the Tiffin Boys’ Choir burst forth with a vocal freshness that the Ladies of the Brighton Festival Chorus struggled to match.

***11