You can, more often than not, tell how good a performance of Mahler's Fifth will be from its opening trumpet call. Here, the Philharmonia's principal, Alistair Mackie, struck just the right balance between stridency and tragedy. Daniele Gatti's direction of this symphony was not, however, one of balance, still less one of compromise. London audiences have heard a lot of Mahler over the last two or three years, but this performance was surely one of the greatest. Violent and febrile, its journey from darkness to light was thoroughly convincing, the kind of performance one lives through rather than simply watches.

Daniele Gatti © Marco Dos Dantos
Daniele Gatti
© Marco Dos Dantos

Although the playing of the Philharmonia was of the highest rank, much depended on Gatti's control. He was far from fussy in his precise and telling detailing (unlike other prominent Mahlerians), paying clear attention to motivic cells and their structural import. He allowed the Philharmonia's principals considerable latitude in phrasing, and they took their chances through chattering contrapuntal polychrome. Particular stars were Katy Woolley's horn, Robin O'Neill's bassoon, and Steven Hudson's guest first oboe. Yet it was Gatti's overall vision that was so enthralling, with generally quick tempi making sense both in relationship to their immediate neighbours and as a whole. One might have quibbled once or twice, particularly in the closing bars, but the conductor's risks were rewarded.

The opening movement was bleak and savage. The march theme was thunderously underlined, fate seemingly inescapable and explosions of agony attacking from all directions. It was obvious, immediately, that Gatti and the Philharmonia knew how much should be at stake in any of Mahler's works. The trio was vicious, plunged into at extreme pace, the soundworld more that of Mahler's next symphony. Counterpoint was brought out constantly, nastily so, driving forwards to a cataclysm of pained dissonance. With the second movement Mahler's dark night of the soul was tinged with hope, but the winds and the attack of the strings made it clear that there was (as yet) no way such hope could triumph. What little chance there was was quickly dismissed, the signs of the joyous brass statements that eventually close the piece callously wrenched away, as if impossible. The playful Scherzo took note, its waltzes disoriented, its rural joys somewhat tempered. Again Gatti's control of tempo variations over one basic thrust was effective, the pointy phrasing from winds showing the naivety of the sickly-sweet strings.

Things should take a turn with the balming love of the Adagietto, and so they did, but what Gatti shaped from the Philharmonia's strings was far from easily won. Gatti kept this moving, more than many conductors would do today, but that, once again, worked in the scheme of the symphony as a whole. Eager yet nervous, this was a much less relaxed and less certain love than that of the movement's obvious cousin, 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen' from Mahler's Rückert-Lieder. It was a little giddy at times with its swooping hairpin dynamics, but then redemptive love would probably be a bit like that. The concluding explosion of pure tone, freely bowed, amply hinted at what had been gained. From there, the terrors of the first two movements had still to be overcome. The Rondo-Finale needed patience, its opening gaiety too jolly to fit in. Yet its drive to the final bars was glorious, the preparation showing Mahler revelling in his compositional talents as much as mastering despair.

This was a shattering performance, as any Mahler should properly be, the thrill of redemption strong enough to banish memories of what had gone before. The standing ovation was quick and nigh-on universal. It was the Mahler of a man who knows his Parsifal well, triumphantly uniting the dichotomy of hope and despair despite the chasm in between. Yet the Act I Prelude and Good Friday Music from Wagner's final music-drama were a touch disappointing, surprisingly so for a conductor whose recent performances at Bayreuth have been lauded. If the colours employed were almost as variegated as in the Mahler, it all sounded more tentative than it ought, the climaxes more suited to a full evening in the theatre than these bleeding chunks. With such magnificence in the Mahler, it wouldn't be unreasonable to imagine that the Wagner was rehearsed a little less. Still, this was very thoughtful programming from Gatti, providing enlightenment for the main event.

Three stars for the Wagner, then, and a heavenful for the Mahler.