It’s so easy, when considering Mahler’s late music, to become preoccupied by death. Nowhere does that seem more reasonable than in his Tenth Symphony, coming hard on the heels of his death-focused Ninth, and which he wasn’t able to complete before he died in May 1911. (Half a century would then pass before scholar Deryck Cooke, realising how much of the symphony had actually been finished, put together his “performing version”.) Such a preoccupation might have permeated Thursday night’s performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Treviño, taking place as it was on the anniversary of the composer’s death.

Robert Treviño conducts the CBSO
© Hannah Fathers

Yet what they revealed was a symphony absolutely obsessed with life. This was clear from the outset, Treviño acknowledging the fact that, though nominally a slow movement, in truth it’s nothing of the kind (still less a standalone valediction, as it was considered prior to Cooke’s intervention), continually breaking out of its Adagio yearnings into material just itching to move. Treviño’s brisk pace brought lightness of step to these sequences while allowing necessary breadth and poignancy in the tender music, channelling this back and forth with ever-growing intensity. Though some strive to make this connection, we were a world away from the sputtering end of the Ninth, never more so than in the unexpected moment of pure agony, rupturing the movement towards its close.

The Adagio’s subsequent return to radiance seemed amazing in light of such pain, yet it soon became normalised in the following Scherzo, where real fire and energy intermingled with intricate, contrapuntal elegance, exacerbated by the subsequent literal plunge into genteel Ländler. There were times when these constant oscillations between heft and weightlessness caused the CBSO to become momentarily ragged or misaligned – here and elsewhere, the performance was marred by too many wayward horn notes – though this was also a side-effect of Treviño’s determination not to play down the brashness of the music, particularly as it became ever more playful, practically turning into a game of volte-face stylistic shifts.

With the short central Purgatorio movement everything began to change. Still the wild fluctuations in character, though the elegance became ghostly, contrasted after with what sounded like a demented hornpipe, before Treviño yanked everything back into its shivering, dark final bars.

In the second Scherzo these violent twists and contortions began to make deeper sense, exposed as less playful than the product of deep inner conflict and turmoil. Here was a simple impulse to sing and dance being continuously disrupted, distorted and dislocated. Somehow, that dance, and the impulse behind it, seemed to be prevailing, whereupon Treviño threw shadow over everything, the rute ruining things with its coarse clacking, while the orchestra turned grotesque and then black, evaporating into gloom to the eldritch sound of dying percussion.

The enormous success of this performance, in the way Treviño and the CBSO kept the momentum going despite its volatile internal state, was most apparent at the start of the Finale. Pulse, in every sense, was finally dead, cancelled in the blank thud of a funeral drum. The contrast was absolute and horrendous. Even here, though, seemingly impossibly, the never-ending impulse to dance and above all sing persisted, becoming the symphony’s – and Mahler’s – ultimate triumph. As the first movement’s tender music slowly and painfully resurrected and revived, Treviño now allowed its tempo to float and drift. Mahler’s First Symphony, over 20 years earlier, had opened with a sunrise; it was impossible not to hear this as a sunset, yet one that even now bristled with life, its final bars a blaze of desperate, sublime passion.