To paraphrase principal flautist Gareth Davies' pre-concert dedication to the victims of yesterday's awful events in Manchester, music spoke where words have failed in this deeply moving account of Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Haitink.

Bernard Haitink © Clive Barda
Bernard Haitink
© Clive Barda

The great Dutchman, greeted onto the rostrum with loud cheers, conducted a performance of the composer's last completed symphony which was as perfectly weighted and measured as could be wished for. Mahler's own pupil Alban Berg wrote of the work as "The expression of an exceptional fondness for this earth, the longing to live in peace on it... before death comes". In Haitink's hands, the symphony was painted on the largest possible canvas, its narrative arc bridging the long pauses between movements, passing from the joy of the first movement to the quiet resignation of the fourth. The result was something deeply consoling and palliative in the best sense of the word.

On the heels of Davies' words, the string theme of opening pages was uncommonly soft, murmured across the stage between opposed violin sections intimately enough to pick out individual players' vibrato. Once in full flow, the interposed horn solos made for lusciously thick textures in the soft tread of the opening theme, before a series of ever more brightly glowing climaxes. The middle passages of the movement never shied away from darkness, both in the hauntingly anguished flute and horn duet and indeed the slammed out heart arrhythmia theme on trombone with crashing tam-tam. When the horn and flute returned minutes later, now in dialogue rather than opposition, the atmosphere turned beautifully to redemption and reconciliation.

Largely putting aside the other-worldly until the finale, the inner movements turned with relish to life itself. The Ländler of the second movement was brilliantly indulgent in embracing its rustic country roots, written large in the strong articulation of the winds, the coarse, heel-of-bow viola playing and frequent grins and glances shot between the front eight strings. Glimpses of the first movement’s sighing two-note theme reappeared, but it was the bright and garish colours of the dance which persisted into the Rondo Burlesque third movement. As with the rest of the symphony, Haitink’s approach here was measured and steady rather than exaggerated, neatly emphasising the brilliance of Mahler’s counterpoint. The middle section of the Rondo looked briefly ahead to the finale in the long, elegant lines for solo trumpet, before the burlesque closed in a rowdy flash of doubled cymbals.

After another brief rest on his stool, Haitink launched the finale with the same remarkably spacious beat he had shown earlier, allowing each phrase time to resonate and hang in the air, trusting to the admirable musicianship of the orchestra to maintain the ensemble. This they did almost without exception, but the occasional lapse in precision was traded for string playing of such intense beauty and poignancy that from whispered melodies to the last, shattering climax, this was an Adagio to remember for a long time. The last note, disappearing imperceptibly into prolonged silence, heralded an emotional ovation as the audience rose from their seats.