​At first glance, the decision to pair Haydn’s Second Cello Concerto with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony seems frivolous, even wilfully contrary. A sweet amuse-bouche before a five-course banquet? Not quite; it turns out these disparate works share something fundamental: structurally speaking, neither of them should work.

Edward Gardner © Neil Pugh
Edward Gardner
© Neil Pugh

Haydn’s concerto is so blatantly lopsided – its fourteen-minute opening significantly longer than both of the following movements – that one wonders if it’s a product of the composer’s cheeky sense of humour. And that’s not all: the tempo indication – Allegro moderato – must be one of the most absurdly slow allegros ever composed, stretching the word ‘moderato’ way beyond any meaning of the word in the Italian language. Yet that heavily tilted centre of gravity emphasises the fact that Haydn was trying something different here, something experimental. We tend to think we know how Classical music behaves, but this movement challenges and confounds those expectations. It’s as though Haydn sought to fuse sonata form with opera, turning the soloist into a dramatic character engaged in arias and recitatives. Indeed, it’s only when the recapitulation kicks in that we’re reminded this is, in fact, sonata form. It’s a mature compositional approach that reveals a similarly open-minded attitude to the concerto as that of Mozart (such a shame Haydn didn’t compose more of them). Jean-Guihen Queyras revelled in the narrative freedom given to him, shrugging off most of the work’s technical demands – which persist through all three movements – to channel a sensibility one could only call Romantic, his use of vibrato particularly telling, allowing notes to hang strangely before massaging life into them. The chamber-sized City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra sounded gorgeously vivid, transporting us into the heart of the 18th century, Edward Gardner acting more like a referee than a conductor, for the most part letting the players get on with it.

Not so with Mahler – Gardner now became something altogether more multi-faceted: a tactician, an engineer, a navigator, a general. As with Haydn, much of Mahler’s material, on paper at least, doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. The composer’s uniquely fickle handling of material, involving some of the most unpredictable volte-faces in all music, pushes notions of structure so far beyond breaking point that we likely need a new term for it. Yet the Fifth doesn’t merely hang together; if anything, the CBSO’s crystal-clear rendition of it left one wondering whether it was actually the most structurally taut of all Mahler’s symphonies. The performance even challenged the composer’s own division of the work into three parts – I+II/III/IV+V – the movements feeling so interconnected at their heart.

Here, then, was exposed a raw, tempestuous, passionate struggle against – well, everything really: the elements, the world, the self, death. Indeed, the Fifth Symphony almost re-enacts the essence of the Second, engaged in a desperate effort to attain resurrection from its horror-bound funereal starting point. Clarified like this, Gardner’s emphasis on the cut-and-paste nature of Mahler’s dramatic turns only made them make more sense, a vivid portrayal of the composer’s grappling with the vicissitudes of his own emotional ‘weather’, flitting between the barest slivers of lyrical optimism before collapsing back into terrifying surges and batterings. Each of the first three movements successively allows more sunlight amidst the storms, to the point where, in the third movement, Gardner practically twirled on stage and the CBSO began to look like they wanted to get up and dance. But Mahler does this in a ‘two-steps-forward, one-step-back’ way that reinforces how hard-won and ultimately painful is this upward progression; principal horn Elspeth Dutch encapsulated this perfectly in the heart-rendingly plangent solos that keep tilting the movement back into melancholy. The subsequent pizzicato episode, the music needing to build itself back up again from scratch, was exquisitely handled, the CBSO suddenly rendered fragile and abject.

Though those opening three movements work perfectly well in and of themselves, finally attaining a rollicking conclusion stained with tears of joy rather than sadness, Mahler clearly wanted not simply to demonstrate a difficult victory, but also allow some well-deserved indulgence in its subsequent glory. The famous Adagietto, to all intents and purposes a love scene, benefitted too from the clarity of this performance. It became more than just a luxuriant scene of aural sex, now revealed as a filtering of the preceding movements – a double-filtering, in fact: first, allowing only the most sun-kissed elements to come through, and second, filtering their intensity to make them caress rather than dazzle. In the wake of this, Gardner’s pulling shapes on the rostrum in the final movement seemed inevitable: now really was the time to dance, Mahler dispatching any and all remaining negative hints instantly, the music’s complex dramatic contortions now the product of unbridled ecstasy.

Gardner and the CBSO’s performance fully deserved the five curtain calls and standing ovation: music may struggle to change the world, but concerts like this send one out full of confident hope in love’s power to overcome all the violence hurled at it.