The obsession with morbidity in the 19th century that culminated in the age of decadence is easy to comprehend: people were never ever far from death. Not least in the Victorian parlours hermetically sealed from the malodorous outside air and yet exposed to wallpaper saturated in arsenic. Mahler knew all about death at first-hand. Not one of his symphonies is without a funeral march, solemn procession or black-edged lament. Such music is part of life itself; it acts as a memento mori, a chilling reminder that no one is to be spared.

Ilan Volkov © Simon Butterworth
Ilan Volkov
© Simon Butterworth

The third movement in this performance of Mahler’s First Symphony, given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Ilan Volkov, was suitably dark-robed, with a sensitive double-bass solo from Graham Mitchell at the start followed by beguilingly soft dynamics from lower strings, clarinets, bassoons and tuba. Just before the klezmer elements which throw the listener out of a contemplative mood the central section for strings and flutes was beautifully realised by the players.

The second movement had a rustic earthiness wholly in keeping with the character of the Ländler: you could almost see the foot-stamping, thigh-slapping and bell-shaking folk in the local tavern, the air heady with the smell of brewed hops, and Volkov allowed his trumpets just the right touch of village-band stridency. When this relaxed into the trio section – which is a disguised waltz – it had all the elegance of ballroom dancers lost in the moment.

Of the outer movements I was less convinced. Mahler’s instructions at the outset are “Slow. Dragging. Like a sound of nature”, but what was missing here was a sense of mystery. Seen from Volkov’s vantage-point the sun’s rays had already penetrated deep into the forest and the horns that can sound like cooing doves were closer to a tally-ho. He had already begun with dynamic levels set unusually high and he kept the music on the move so nothing deflected from the path ahead, not even those aching cello phrases which represent the deepest levels of Romantic yearning. In fact, this was one of the fastest live performances I have ever heard, coming in at just 53 minutes.

The finale begins with the aural equivalent of Munch’s The Scream, the first version of which appeared in the same year (1893) as the Hamburg revision of the symphony. Volkov and the RPO certainly delivered a massive punch with thunderous timpani and tumultuous trombones, but it was the decibel level which had the bigger impact, rather than the terror that the composer surely had in mind. The initial key is in F minor, representing the “inferno” which was part of Mahler’s original programmatic title, “Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso”. Where were those glimpses of the abyss, made even more spine-chilling in the next number of the canon?

The use of musical motifs is something that Mahler borrowed from Liszt’s Dante Symphony and it is instructive to note that the younger composer called his D major work “a tone poem in symphonic form”. The very last tone poem that Liszt wrote, in 1881/82, is said to have been inspired by a neo-Gothic painting and represents the three stages of existence: birth, the struggle for being and death, the cradle of the life to come. The full score was not performed until 1927 and almost certainly suffered from the strictures of one Lisztian scholar who called it “a senile aberration”. It made an excellent companion piece for the symphony in this concert, not least because Volkov (who has already recorded it) shaped the three contrasting sections to great effect. It is tempting to hear in the opening lullaby and later sections of turbulence pre-echoes of the Mahlerian sound-world.

The sandwich was Beethoven’s G major Piano Concerto, a work with an interesting connection to the first item for it was Liszt who referred to the central Andante con moto movement as “Orpheus taming the Furies”. Pavel Kolesnikov took a by no means conventional view of the work. This was at some remove from the ruggedness and gruffness which are inherently part of the Beethovenian spirit. Admittedly, it can take a great deal of tonal fastidiousness and chamber-like delicacy so that the listener is occasionally put into a position of eavesdropping on an intimate musical dialogue. There was often a translucent quality to Kolesnikov’s playing, with trills perfectly placed and an ear for ravishing dynamic shadings. Nothing ever threatened the outer serenity, the right hand always projecting the melodic line, the left never fully realising the dramatic potential. The degree of fastidiousness was most marked in the slow movement where there was no confrontation between Orpheus and the Furies. Two separate worlds coexisted, the orchestra in the here-and-now and the soloist communing with himself in a state of otherworldliness. Battles can indeed sometimes be avoided.