With the exception of the St Petersburg Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is the only one I can recall walking onto a silent, empty, Usher Hall stage en masse. I don't know why this feature should strike me so – perhaps mere schoolteacher overtones. The welcome was warm and sustained until all 115 members were in place for Mahler’s monumental Symphony no. 9 in D major (1908–09), the programme’s only piece. Fittingly, Daniele Gatti let some moments pass in silence before easing into the opening Andante comodo.

Daniele Gatti © CAMI
Daniele Gatti
© CAMI

Easing in seemed to be exactly what Mahler required, his beloved “dominant pedal” harp notes deferring the establishment of the home key of D major. Another Mahlerian trademark, appoggiaturas, contributed to the movement’s unhurried progress. Each chord at such a moment contained a note which delayed any sense of settling until it realigned with its neighbours by means of a gentle downward step. These were delicately handled. As the movement began to pick up, the excellent horn section, which was to contribute massively across the piece, made its presence felt. Taking wing, some moments later, the sound of this wonderful orchestra really opened up. Julian Johnson’s excellent programme note quoted Alban Berg, who was present at the première, opining that the whole movement “is based on a premonition of death”. Indeed, Mahler marked the final page of the score “Leb’wohl” (“Farewell”). Viewed in this light, the movements climaxes feel tinged with defeat and resignation and I thought Gatti’s and the orchestra’s pacing and shaping of this excellent.

Like the first movement, the second also fades out, but not before some lively dance music. It is marked “Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb” (“At the tempo of a Ländler. Somewhat clumsy and very coarse”). The orchestra’s 36 violinists followed Mahler’s instruction to play &ldqou;wie Fiedeln” (“like fiddlers”) to the letter and their bright tone, along with the presence of bright woodwind, helped to distinguish the movement’s rural Ländlers from its urban walztes. It’s not that the waltzes were more elegant; if anything they were even more out of control, this feeling put across with their giddy speed and ostentatious timpani strikes.

If Mahler was hinting at the end of the established European order in the second movement, this sentiment was intensified in the following Rondo-Burleske. Once again the horn section stood out, its early stubborn triplet figures making its presence felt. I had been primed by Johnson’s programme note to listen out for fragmented orchestration and really enjoyed not only hearing ideas bounce around the orchestra but watching the impressive Gatti, who was conducting from memory, cue up change after radical change of colour. The movement’s wealth of imitative counterpoint was clear and balanced. The only movement to end with a bang, it does undergo a quiet little episode marked “nicht eilen” (“not rushed”) in which the main theme of the closing movement is introduced.

Everything changed when the final Adagio began. The warmth of the strings was antithesis of the bucolic brightness heard earlier; the key of D flat major certainly contributed to this. The harmony’s refusal to resolve in any traditional way at phrase endings felt as exhausting as walking on subsiding ground. Theodor Adorno was quoted in the programme as saying that Mahler “charges tonality with an expression that it is no longer constituted to bear”.

The movement also contains the quietest moment of orchestral music I can recall hearing in a live situation, at which point I had to acknowledge the tyranny of the forgotten phone, capable of interruption even in absentia. This was an extremely affecting movement and not just for me. I became acutely aware of my fellow audience members with whom we undergo some kind of communion. The woman to my left was, unconsciously I imagine, engaged in a bonsai conducting experience. Was she following Gatti’s intentions, or willing the movement in another, perhaps favourite direction? As the music thinned and seemed to depart this realm I noticed, in the organ gallery above the orchestra, a hand raised to an eye, its owner in floods of tears. Even allowing for purely personal associations music’s power to overcome is clear in such moments. Nevertheless I found myself wondering: why do we put ourselves through this?

The answer to that question lay in the audience response, the most tumultuous of my festival-going this year. This wasn’t clamouring for an encore; that was never on the cards. It was simply the reaction of around 2,300 people who had undergone a 90-minute journey together. Each would take away something different; few, I believe, would remain unaffected. Principal horn Laurens Woudenberg received an deafening cheer for injecting two ingredients into the music which seem related but rarely occur together: fire and warmth.