“My Sixth seems to be yet another hard nut, one that our critics' feeble little teeth cannot crack”. It will “propound riddles the solution of which may be attempted only by a generation which has absorbed and truly digested my first five symphonies.”. So wrote Mahler in letters to the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg and the Austrian writer and musicologist Richard Specht respectively. Critics and musicologists have since struggled to crack the nut, with many questions ranging from the meaning of this complex work to the order of the four movements. The former was aided (or, possibly, confused) by Alma Mahler’s later revelations about the work, including the apparent depiction of Alma herself in the “great, rousing theme of the first movement”. If I’d been Alma, and had heard the symphony in its entirety, I would have been rather wary of making that claim – it is one of the most intense and potential disturbing, violent and dispiriting of all his works. But if you are a believer in ‘fate’, then this is the symphony for you. Often (incorrectly) referred to as the ‘Tragic’ Symphony (Mahler disliked such programmatic references), the final movement originally featured three great hammer blows (the technical production of which have exercised percussionists, recording engineers and reviewers for many years), that depict the ultimate failure of the ‘hero’. Although stories of it being prophetic are of course nonsense (although the superstitious Mahler himself later removed the third hammer blow), it is true that within three years of its completion (1904), three great personal blows did indeed strike Mahler, including the death of his eldest daughter Maria Anna and the diagnosis of the heart condition that would eventually kill him. Incidentally, for another musical tribute to a later deceased child of Alma Mahler, by then married to Gropius, see the review of the Berg Violin Concerto.

The work opens with the sinister thump, thump, thump of the bass strings as a march attempts to get awkwardly underway. After a couple of minutes, a drum roll heralds two key motifs. First an emphatic drum beat and than an A major chord from three trumpets and four oboes, the trumpets initial blaze being taken over by the more plangent tone of the oboes as the chord changes to A minor. A chorale-like passage then leads to the so-called Alma theme, a soaring and not-altogether comfortable melody that is quickly overcome by the march. As in a Classical symphony of a century or more before, the whole of this section is then repeated. It appears that Mahler was in one of the happiest times of his life as this symphony was written, although there are very few cues in the music itself. One moment that might depict the happy Mahler comes after about 12 minutes, when the distant sound of cow bells is heard above the shimmering strings, the unearthly sound of the celeste and fragments of the chorale theme, producing an evocation of the mountains that Mahler loved. He saw the sound of the cow bells, echoing across the mountain valleys, as a link between earth and heaven. But this is soon interrupted by the violent return of the march and the deconstructed Alma theme. Despite an occasional attempt at repose, the mood remains strident until the very end, when the key of A major briefly takes over for a sort of positive ending.

Although Mahler original placed the Scherzo before the Andante, he changed his mind before the first performance and revised the score accordingly. Until fairly recently, conductors have ignored Mahler’s very clear intensions, but recent musicology is firmly in favour of the slow-fast order. However Maazel chose to play the Schezo first, thereby continuing the drama and bluster of the first movement, with which it shares many moments. For a start, it immediately counters the major key ending of the first movement by going straight back to A minor. One of the features of the whole symphony, but which is most prominent in this movement, is the use of harsh instrumental textures, with four or more of the main woodwind instruments playing stridently wide-spaced motifs at more than full volume – helped on this occasion by having the oboists and clarinets raising their instruments to point them directly at the audience. The central trio section is marked “altväterisch”, which can be interpreted as both ‘old fashioned’ and ‘grandfatherly’. It does sound like a rather worse for wear grandfather attempting a clumsily dance on his way back from the local Bierkeller. With her rather shaky hindsight, Alma Mahler saw this movement as depicting their two children playing “unrhythmic games … tottering in zigzags over the sand”, albeit with continual sinister overtones; and a complete failure of memory from Alma because when this movement was written one of the ‘two children’ was only a few months old and the other wasn’t even a twinkle in the combined Mahlerian eyes.

With the Scherzo played second, the Andante comes as a much needed moment of comparative relaxation before the bombastic and complex final movement – and the famous hammer blows, one of the moments of real visual drama in music. On this occasion a large wooden mallet, the head probably about 300mm in diameter, was raised well above the percussionist’ head before crashing down onto a wooden block. Mahler wanted it to be "brief and mighty, dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character like the fall of an axe.". It was, although I have heard louder and more dramatic attempts, and you can find some yourself on YouTube. It is difficult to describe the progress of the final movement. The usual interpretation is that the ‘hero’ of the piece stuggles to overcome all his difficulties but is twice (or even thrice) beaten by the hammer blow of fate, the final blow (whether or not it is delivered by the hammer) being the killer blow. Trombones announce what could be a funeral cortège and it looks as though the work might end quietly until a sudden and dramatic screech from the full orchestra that dies away to a characteristic Mahler pizzicato pluck from the strings.

Mahler stated that this was a work that the “critics' feeble little teeth cannot crack” and, despite all the efforts at interpretation over the years, many unduly influenced by Alma Mahler’s remeniscences, it remains a tricky work to fathom out. It is not a comfortable listen – I overheard one member of the audience speak of wrist slitting as she left. As Julian Johnson’s programme note suggested, there are possible interpretations based on the work of Nietzche and his view of the hero and, for those who do believe in Mahler’s prophetic ability, further interpretatons based on the state of the German speaking world in the years before the First World War – the first performance was, after all, in Essen, the centre of Germany’s heavy industry and the place were most of their guns were produced. But, whatever our present day views, it was a work the clearly affected Mahler greatly. He was said to have been completely distraught after the first reheasal in Essen, sobbing and wringing his hands in a state of shock.

The Philharmonia gave this concert two days earlier in the Royal Festival Hall but, at the Basingstoke Anvil, we had the addition of a short first half of Mozart’s Serenade in C minor (K388), featuring some fine oboe playing from Christopher Cowie. The Anvil also has the advantage of being a smaller venue, with more focussed and generous acoustics and a much greater degree of involvement with the music. The Philharmonia was on stunning form, as was Maazel, retaining the concentrated forward pulse that is essential if this tricky work is not to lose all sense of direction.