How times change! At the Munich première of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in 1901 there was persistent loud hissing, and on its first performance in New York a few years later one local critic described it as “a musical monstrosity” and “the most painful torture”. Yet today it is regarded as one of the composer’s most popular works. Given that in the right hands this symphony oozes a heady bucolic charm and bathes the listener in radiant sunshine, it is difficult to comprehend what all the fuss was about.

Lucas Debargue © Evgeny Evtyukhov
Lucas Debargue
© Evgeny Evtyukhov

One of the many virtues of this performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under its Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski was the broad sweep of its generous spirit combined with an analytical probing of the multi-faceted instrumental texture, the phrase endings receiving as much attention as the melodic accentuation. It is possible to hear in the jingle-jangle of the opening bars echoes of Leopold Mozart’s Musical Sleigh-Ride. That would be to wrongly assume a mood of unruffled sunniness in this most ironic of composers: the one work by Richard Strauss that Mahler conducted more than any other was his Till Eulenspiegel, in which the hero comes to a sticky end after a succession of merry pranks. Mahler in fact insisted that these sounds were not those of bells attached to a child’s sledge, but those on a jester’s cap. As in medieval court drama, Mahler’s apparent jollity is a cloak for a deeper truth.

Throughout, Jurowski drew exceptionally characterful playing from his instrumental soloists, from the fat earthy sounds produced by clarinets and bassoons in the opening movement to the bright celestial celebration from trumpet, triangle and glockenspiel at its close. If the woodwinds constantly delighted the ear with their rusticity, the strings were no less impressive, with immensely supple and refined playing. At the start of the scherzo, Jurowski took me as close as I could hope to get to Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree, with its “bee-loud glade”, where “midnight’s all a-glimmer and noon a purple glow, and evening full of the linnet’s wings”. The slow movement began slowly and softly, the darker hues of the lower strings predominating, before Ian Hardwick’s beautifully poised oboe pointed the way towards an understanding of what this great Adagio is all about. As originally sketched, Mahler’s explanatory title for this movement was “The World without Gravity”. With at times daringly slow tempi, Jurowski found those genuine moments of repose when time appears to stand still, where the door to a hidden interior world opens for a tantalisingly brief glimpse before the lock falls back into place.

Having witnessed far too many inelegant entrances of the soprano soloist for the finale - in one recent case the lady in question scampered furiously across the platform in order to reach her place next to the conductor with seconds to spare – it was a joy to see Sofia Fomina seated from the very beginning, a model of discipline, who then sang her entire contribution from memory. Hers was an ideal voice for this recreation of a child’s view of heaven, silvery-toned, compact yet expressive, with only one blemish. Since German is a language in which consonants require as much care as the vowels do, a beautiful steady line is not enough: the words, as always in Mahler, take on supreme importance.

Jurowski being a man of the theatre and a proponent of unorthodox programming, one can perhaps forgive his decision to open the evening with a little-known and seldom performed Haydn overture, whose chief merit was an unusual piece of theatricality. Lo speziale (The Apothecary) began with high-spirited music of the champagne-cork-popping variety until the conductor retired to a position among the violas and second violins, leaving his principal flute (Juliette Bausor) to voice a stylish aria before he returned to the podium to conduct a short celebratory flourish by way of conclusion.

If nothing else, this overture provided a strong contrast to the work that followed. The soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor, K491, Lucas Debargue, has already created something of a stir. He didn’t take up the piano until he was eleven, decided to switch to playing bass in a rock band at the age of fifteen, returned to the piano five years later and as a virtual unknown reached the finals (where he was placed fourth) of the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition. On the basis of this performance he still has some room for development. It was a neat and tidy reading, the playing often understated and lacking a feel for the groundswell of drama inherent in this dark and ambiguous masterpiece. The two cadenzas felt unconnected to the work itself, the first having echoes of Scarlatti and the second including elements of misplaced bravura. Debargue seemed happiest with a solo line or in dialogue with the wind.