Judging by the rapturous applause from many on their feet, I suspect I am in the minority in being disappointed with Thursday night’s performance of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony by the Philharmonia. And yet I cannot contain the feeling that it could, and should, have been so much more.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Not considering Mahler’s final symphony enough of a concert on its own (in spite of it lasting an hour and a quarter), the Philharmonia paired it with a “final” work of Mozart’s, his Piano Concerto no. 27 in B flat major. There is some debate about how final it is – it may have been begun several years before Mozart’s death, before being set aside and completed in the late months of 1790 – but it is often viewed as a work that foreshadows his early demise.

As is so often the case, this view comes with the benefit of hindsight. The Philharmonia’s approach felt more like the closing of a musical chapter. References to earlier works were drawn out by Petrenko; I heard flashes of the Adagio from the Piano Concerto no. 23, the Piano Sonata in C major, Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. These were contrasted with harmonically forward looking cadenzas. Till Fellner matched the light yet grounded style of the orchestra, although stately moments drifted towards clunkiness in places. In the final movement, the ensemble between Fellner and the Philharmonia became anxious and eventually awkward. Overall, however, the performance indicated a Mozart thinking about his musical future, rather than his end.

Unfortunately the performance of the Tenth Symphony failed to communicate much of Mahler’s greatness. Additionally the ensemble problems in the Mozart worsened over time, with Petrenko failing to establish control of an orchestra who were neither paying attention to him nor each other. There were also intonation problems when the strings moved into their upper registers. The first movement had flashes of Mahler’s spirit, but these were quickly bludgeoned. Fortunately it wasn’t heavy-handed enough to take away from the terrifying violence of Mahler’s most dissonant moment towards the end of the movement, and afterwards there was a touch more sensitivity in the playing. The second and third movements, however, went back to unsubtle, uncoordinated territory, and were utterly wearing in a way they were not intended to be. The second Scherzo saw signs of improvement, with more delicate handling of changes of mood and a lovely deftness in pared-back passages; it was just unfortunate that the climax was over-egged.

At last, in the Finale, Mahler was truly heard; broodingly funereal at the start, before opening out into great warmth (via a stunning flute solo), showing real depth and nuance. There were still ensemble problems; faster sections lost cohesion, but overall this movement explored all the facets of Mahler. There was real power in the return of Mahler’s most violent music, and a delicacy to the unravelling that followed it. If the entire performance had been of the standard of the final movement, we would have had a treat. As it was I was left with a frustrating sense of what might have been.