Tackling Mahler’s symphonies is a bit like climbing mountains in the Himalayas. It’s not something you wake up to one fine morning thinking to knock back a K2 today. Rather, given their leviathan nature and profound musical demands, respect, reflection and much courage are necessary traits when setting about them.

With the focus on Mahler’s early symphonies and Lieder of the Wunderhorn years for the forthcoming season of the National Symphony Orchestra, the First Symphony in D major made for an impressive and logical opening. Given its nickname, The Titan, it dominated the programming both in terms of length (just a few minutes short of the hour) and complexity. The other two works which made up the first half – Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture and Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat major – were not short of dramatic flourishes but were of relatively brief duration.

From the start of the Prometheus Overture, the sound from the NSO was taut, sharp and energetic. The string section in particular sounded in good form, capturing the lyricism of the contrasting theme very well. Principal conductor Alan Buribayev made the music bubble with energy while ensuring a good balance between the orchestra.

As one might conjecture, Liszt’s Piano Concerto is a showcase for virtuosic passagework, fiendish octaves and expressive lyricism, characteristics for which the composer was famed all over Europe. Soloist, Elisso Virsaladze proved she did indeed possess the requisite technique if not the fiery bravura for this work. The flashy octaves which open the concerto might not have been entirely clean, but Virsaladze projected a good menacing sound at the start and subsequently making the piano sing in the lyrical sections. The slow movement was wistfully intimate while the opening of the finale was impressively done. However, I felt Virsaladze’s interpretation lacked spark and could have done with an injection of adrenalin. 

From the seven octave As that opens Mahler’s First Symphony, Buribayev captured the stillness and tension inherent within the music. The woodwind interjections were suitably bird-like and the off-stage trumpets meant they weren’t overbearing, enhancing the sense of mystery. The main part of the movement started shyly on the violins, suggesting a vernal innocence and freshness to nature’s awakening. As nature burst forth with exuberance, the orchestra responded with eagerness. The string section – in previous seasons, occasionally on the scratchy side – seemed rejuvenated after their summer break, playing with all the freshness and enthusiasm which the first movement demands.

Buribayev elected for a lively tempo for the second movement Ländler quite a deal faster than the broad tempo of a Bernstein’s version. Yet, the quick tempo did not detract from the rustic, earthy qualities of this country dance. There were suitably mocking outbursts from the horns though the woodwind lacked a sufficient tongue-in cheek quality in their interjections. The contrasting middle section featured some delightful, lilting strings while the return of the country dance finished off in great excitement.

A single, muted double-bass opens the third movement. There is a school of thought that suggests that this opening melody should be played by all the double-basses; however, to my taste, the melody is far more haunting as a solo; last night it conjured up an atmosphere of infinite sadness with a whiff of the exotic East. Mahler parodies the melody of Frère Jacques (played in a minor key). Here the flutes, oboes and clarinets seemed to revel in their mocking descant line, while the string section hinted at irony in their glissando leaps. The middle section, which quotes from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of the Wayfarer) had a tender, touching quality to it which offset the lugubrious funeral march which encompasses this movement.

The crash of the turbulent opening of the fourth movement startled several unsuspecting members of the audience, as Buribayev and the NSO tore through the apocalyptic finale. And while there were moments of visceral fury that left us gasping for breath, Buribayev observed a clever gradation of dynamics. The glorious second subject was tenderly restrained on first iteration, before Buribayev, with great Bernstein-like, emphatic gestures, whipped up the emotion and passion for the climax of this subject. The excitement continued unabated in the stormy section which followed and so understandably, the magical reiteration of the opening movement did not possess the same sense of peace and wonder as the NSO captured at the start of this half. As the symphony came to its powerful close, Buribayev with the end and victory in sight gave it his all, ratcheting up both the volume and the excitement to an almost unbearable degree. It was truly a spine-tingling ending which had the Friday night crowd unusually jumping to their feet in ovation. It was a marvellous opening to the season, making the other Mahler concerts a must.