Mahler proclaimed that his Sixth Symphony was “another hard nut, one that our critics’ feeble teeth cannot crack”. A sell-out audience gathered in snowy Milan to hear this famously enigmatic work full of riddles and inconsistencies that continue to leave critics scratching their heads. Why did Mahler write such a tragic, even nihilistic work at a time that he was purportedly very happy? And what do the yearning “Alma theme” and the blissful andante movement, unlikely oases of tranquility in the middle of a tempest, really mean? Such riddles have given rise to a plethora of explanations, from one academic’s suggestion that the disparate material represents the Mahlers’ secretly unhappy marriage to Theodor Adorno’s postulation that it demonstrates attempts to bring sonata form into the 20th century.

Eiji Oue
Eiji Oue
Tonight’s performance precipitated some new answers to these questions. A hurtling plough-train that stopped for nothing, this ceaselessly dramatic rendition, in which the military rhythms were sharp and the climaxes huge, had a strangely uplifting quality that remained entrenched long after the performance. Was this the result of a pronounced dramatic catharsis? Perhaps more accurately, La Verdi drew out some of the more positive aspects of this work, and in doing so made us question the extent to which it can be branded “tragic”.

The optimistic interpretation was partly brought about by wise structural decisions – the rippling andante came in third rather than second place (it is more effective at breaking up the darker movements in this position), and we were treated to just two, rather than three, of the famous hammer-blows on a giant mallet. But the mainspring of tonight’s fresh interpretation was the director’s boundless energy.

Vladimir Jurowski, who was billed for tonight but was ill with bronchitis, was covered by Eiji Oue, who admittedly displayed a few eccentricities on the podium. In the first movement, lapses in sound were filled with very audible expulsions of air, which were presumably meant to educe warm surges from the incoming lower strings. The conductor utilised an exaggerated rubato in the soupier sections that sometimes got in the way and stemmed the flow of the music. Frantic gestures were at one point accompanied by an exclaimed “più forte”, and when even this wasn’t enough, the conductor flailed like an overwrought Luke Skywalker. This was at times all a bit distracting.

But Oue’s interminable vivacity invested usually introspective portions of this work with real brightness and brought them to the fore. In the finale, Mahler’s hero is bombarded by waves of sound, and riotous brass and percussion is interspersed with the human rusticity of lonely strands from horns, swiping harps and rattling cowbells. These quieter moments were made to demand our attention, and the hero could be seen here as resisting worldly affliction with valour, thus unsettling the traditional teleology of the piece in which the eerie “fate motif” marks his death as a foregone conclusion. The hero’s eventual downfall was all the more dramatic as a result.

Though it was more dramatic it was possibly less tragic. The erotic indulgence in the Alma theme flared with iridescent ardour as the violins heaved, Oue pulling them around with wide rubato. The usually tranquil Andante comprised a subterranean radiance that threatened to explode at any moment, and an especially powerful moment featured assembled horns pouring over yearning violins. Encompassed in large swathes of dark, these moments of incandescence felt like the sort of Mahlerian celebration of the human condition more easily discernible in his Eighth Symphony. Oue’s rendering posed a question: is this work really nihilistic or does it instead celebrate man’s continual strife in the face of inevitable adversity, a sort of Nietzschean glorification of the “Will to Power”?

Much like tonight’s performance, La Verdi’s season has so far hurtled along at a rate of knots, and Mahler has evidently been a focal point. They have had both Chailly and Axelrod to conduct incredibly good performances of his Eighth and Second Symphonies, and future performances of the Fourth and Tenth Symphonies remain tantalising prospects. They are barely 20 years old, were voted in Bachtrack’s recent poll as the world’s 18th favourite orchestra, and La Verdi look set to accelerate into the future. Based on their recent performances, let’s hope they bring Mahler with them.

*****