A performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 9 raises many questions, not least of which is what should be programmed with it.  Those of us who hope to find in such mighty late Romantic works an all-encompassing architecture, even the possibility of emotional or spiritual experience of life-changing significance, might feel that the work should stand alone, it is enough, and nothing should be allowed to distract us from the weighty focus of the evening.  And if, in such a frame of mind, at this evening’s concert we came hoping Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor would be, if not precisely a nothing, then next to nothing, we were in for a stunning surprise.

Nicholas Angelich © Stéphane de Bourgies
Nicholas Angelich
© Stéphane de Bourgies

It begins with the briefest of rumbling orchestral crescendos, after which Nicholas Angelich pounced upon the work’s opening theme as though already in the vortex of a storm, loud and harsh with plenty of pedal, the angular  theme sounding as muscular as anything by Brahms. Indeed, so much troubled energy was conjured up that the beguiling oft-repeated rise and fall of the second theme, though beautifully played and taken up by the woodwind, never quite lost the turbulent atmosphere - other than at the masterstroke  of its reappearance, just before the final race to the finishing line at the end of the whole work, where it provides the briefest nostalgic vision of peace.

The work plays without a break, the slow movement ushered in by startling trumpet fanfares. Here, Angelich found an unexpected profundity in the work, with spellbinding, rapt playing, in a wonderful dialogue with the lower strings - violas, cellos and double basses of the LPO sounding glorious, occasionally given added colour by the subtlest of highlights from horns and woodwind. The increasingly dense ornamentation provided by the soloist was no mere prettiness, but more the resurgence of the turbulence that dominated the first movement. More fanfares usher in the Presto finale whose main theme is one of those infectious, jaunty little melodies that is inclined to get on the brain and outstay its welcome in that place.  But it was not so this evening, for Angelich, even at high speed of considerable virtuosity, gave it a Beethovenian trenchancy and heft.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and LPO were at one with the soloist, providing all he needed to magnify this work to the limits of its passionate expressive capability. It was a very fine performance indeed and set the bar high for the second half of the concert. But I have to say that the performance of Mahler’s Ninth was, overall, somewhat disappointing. At its best, as in the Rondo Burleske third movement, it shone and sparkled with wild energy, and the visionary trio that prefigures the fourth movement Adagio theme, undermined by parodying distortions on woodwind, came as though from a ghostly distance. But what I missed in the first and second movements was a feeling for the rhythmic shape of thematic material, the lilt, the rise and fall to the accented note of the phrase, without which all the expressive paraphernalia of Mahler’s orchestral palette becomes curiously mute, and the purposeful progress of the music, be it a march, a song or a ländler, is undermined.

As in all Mahler symphonies, there are many disparate events and in this performance some worked and some didn’t. The three great waves of the first movement rose to climaxes that lacked emotional weight, and that moment where everything falls quiet and trombones and tuba intone their falling chromatic fanfare was preceded by so long a pause, and so slowly presented that it seemed bereft of context and meaning. But a moment later, when they spell it out again in slow triplets, in this performance very quietly, it took on a steely, spectral quality, very affecting but hard to place in the overall narrative of this interpretation. There is a tendency with this symphony for the strength of the first movement to overshadow those that follow and unbalance the work, but tonight there was little danger of that as it seemed somehow underpowered, a little incoherent and its significance undermined.

The ‘comfortable Ländler’ of the second movement was at its best at its most uncomfortable; the clumping, vulgar second theme came across very strongly, and the woodwinds were particularly splendid in this movement - the clarinets’ response to the bassoons’ rising scale motive absolutely delicious at the beginning, and the piccolo’s quavers at the close a delight to hear, though the last bars which Mahler asks not to be hurried did indeed seem a bit rushed.

One always hopes that the Adagio finale will in some way speak to the manifold disjunctions that preceded, but once again its eloquence seemed undermined. Perhaps this was deliberate, an avoidance of sentimentality or self-pity or schmaltz but, for this listener at least, it all seemed to be taking place at an uninvolving distance. Even so, suddenly revelatory moments would shine through, mainly solos - the contrabassoon’s theme of rising scales had a heart-stopping immediacy. Perhaps the best moment of all in this whole performance was Kristina Blaumane’s cello solo that ushers in the fading coda; it had about it a restrained poetry, a humility that rose to a higher level than much else towards which this interpretation of the symphony had aspired.