There is something strangely appropriate about a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in the dead of winter, when trees are denuded and all life shuts down, with nature’s structures standing gaunt and stark against gloomy skies, assaulted by chilly winds. There was something of such iciness in this performance by the SWR Symphony Orchestra under its chief conductor, Teodor Currentzis. A seasonal reference hung in the air too, when in the third movement the solo trumpet picked out those all-important pre-echoes of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.

Teodor Currentzis and the SWR Symphony Orchestra at the Elbphilharmonie © Daniel Dittus
Teodor Currentzis and the SWR Symphony Orchestra at the Elbphilharmonie
© Daniel Dittus

Currentzis is someone who easily divides critical opinion, like so many before him. Norman Lebrecht recently declared, “Any more hype and hot air and he’ll become Icarus.” That analogy with one particular individual’s sticky end is seriously wide of the mark: when Currentzis is good, he is very good. Very good indeed. Not only has he already turned his SWR players into a formidable band, responsive to his many demands with impeccable ensemble and individual instrumental virtuosity, but he also had the full measure of a work which needs a steady hand and sympathetic spirit in order to make structural sense of its many moving parts.

Mahler’s first known composition, written around the age of seven, was a piece called “Polka with Funeral March”. Therein lie the germs of virtually his entire symphonic output: a lifelong preoccupation with dance rhythms and what Alban Berg, writing about the Ninth, called “the premonition of death”. The Andante comodo marking of the opening movement was dutifully respected, those early melodic fragments floating like dry leaves in a thermal updraught. All the sighs and exhalations from the strings were there too: the breathing shallow, the life-force diminished but not yet extinguished. Of all the wealth of inner detail that Currentzis uncovered – and he now knows how to extract the maximum effects from the crystalline acoustics of the Elbphilharmonie – it was the repeated contributions of his superlative horn section that stood out. By turns minatory and declamatory, velvet-clad and then like the north wind’s icy whistle, memories of lowing cattle on the alp and tolling bells in the valley below, the range of sonorities was quite remarkable.

Teodor Currentzis and the SWR Symphony Orchestra at the Elbphilharmonie © Daniel Dittus
Teodor Currentzis and the SWR Symphony Orchestra at the Elbphilharmonie
© Daniel Dittus

At the start of the Ländler the strings, strengthened by extra desks, dug deep and emphatically. There was an earthiness and doggedness to the playing which was utterly compelling: this was a dog that was not going to give up its bone, life would not end without a struggle. In the following Rondo-Burleske the whiplash string lines reminded me of scythes cutting through fields of summer corn, the shadow of the Grim Reaper always in attendance. All the movement’s contrapuntal ferocity was spat out with sardonic energy.

Come the start of the Adagio, there was a breath-stopping intensity from the strings, groaning and then aching with anguish, like a supplicant beseeching and imploring yet more moments of life, while the growling contrabassoon cast a growing shadow. As this great work moved into the concluding Adagissimo section, Currentzis pared down the dynamics almost to the point of inaudibility while the musical hold on life was slowly being relinquished. In a coup de théâtre I have never witnessed before, the entire lighting in the hall was progressively dimmed, leaving the platform shrouded in semi-darkness. At the very end, like Abbado before him, Currentzis craved a couple of minutes of silence before his arms finally came to rest. The Greek tragedy was all over.

*****