From the very start, Mahler's Sixth Symphony has been spiked with controversy. Alban Berg, who was present at the premiere in May 1906, declared it to be “The only Sixth – despite the Pastoral”. Two of the composer’s faithful conducting disciples, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, refused to ever touch it, and their contemporary Wilhelm Furtwängler called it “the first nihilist work in the history of music”. The debate about whether Mahler really wanted the Scherzo to come second or third in running order has never been satisfactorily resolved, much like the ruminations about which version by which editor of a Bruckner symphony to choose. This A minor symphony is also plagued by the question of the hammer blows: Mahler originally planned five, then reduced the number to three and finally just two. Interpreters therefore have much to consider, even before they start shaping the lines.

Sir Antonio Pappano conducting the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia © Mark Allan | Barbican
Sir Antonio Pappano conducting the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Mark Allan | Barbican

And the questions keep coming. If the march which opens the work is all about an army on its feet, how much esprit de corps should it display – a heavy trudge of defiance or a goose-stepping swagger? Sir Antonio Pappano, conducting his Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, clearly had no time for emotional excesses. This was a weighty and urgent beginning, the lower strings in particular displaying solidity and purposefulness. Elsewhere the playing took a while to settle and Pappano’s pulse was somewhat unyielding, with no concessions to theatrical intemperance. On their first appearance the cowbells were hardly audible, though the softness of the first solo horn entry was already a demonstration of quality and sensitivity (and indeed the entire horn section distinguished itself throughout). In the coda, where the predominantly minor key swings into A major, a sense of jubilation was kept firmly in check, Pappano stressing the classical proportions of a movement wreathed in sonata form.

Then came a welcome surprise. The Scherzo followed with hardly a pause for breath – and the minimal breaks between the other movements emphasised a symphonic continuum – delivered with rather more rhythmic sharpness than in the opening movement. Mahler directs that it be played weightily but also “as if whipped” (wie gepeitscht). In many respects this was something of a Witches’ Sabbath, the dark colours of the underworld emerging powerfully in the growl of the lower strings and bray of the brass, the xylophone eerily invoking the macabre. The characterful wind added sinuous contributions. However, just when you thought there might be more in the way of Mahlerian angst, it was all carefully reined in. No indulgences either in the two Trio sections where the “grandfatherly” (altväterisch) elements in the rusticity never really provided a strong enough contrast.

When the Scherzo is placed second, the importance of the Andante as a song without words, a sanctuary from the earlier storms and stresses before the onslaught of the longest movement, takes on added significance. There was again much softness in the playing but without true radiancy in the upper strings, unable perhaps to secure those essential qualities of serenity in the glare of the Barbican acoustic. This time the cowbells were clearly audible. Mahler described their use as representing “the last earthly sounds heard from the valley below by the departing spirit on the mountain top”. Once again Pappano presented the musical argument with restraint, the purity of the Alpine air reflected in the glacial-sounding flutes and clarity of the textures.

Sir Antonio Pappano conducting the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia © Mark Allan | Barbican
Sir Antonio Pappano conducting the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Mark Allan | Barbican

And so to the finale. What I found particularly striking in Pappano’s approach was the closeness to some of the earliest Expressionist writing of the period: Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces were just a breath away. In particular, where the musical spectrum seems stretched to breaking point – the juxtaposition of tuba with piccolo, harps and celesta, for instance – the score sounded positively prophetic. We were not denied a ride into the abyss either, where you sense tailcoats flapping in a solar storm, Mahler demanding that it all be played with brute strength (Alles mit roher Kraft). Yet the composer still has a trick up his sleeve: those hammer blows which really need to be jump-out-of-your-seat loud. Teodor Currentzis, who knows a thing or two about the Sixth, sees the entire work as “a form of ancient drama” and the hammer blows coming as a deus ex machina at the point where no other outcome is possible and catharsis needs to be attained. Pappano’s player was at the back of the platform in a slightly elevated position, wielding a gigantic mallet. It was loud, but not ear-poppingly so. And on its second appearance the sound was trounced by cymbals and the heavy brass.

The very last conundrum for the conductor is the final pizzicato snap. Is it to be the satisfaction which comes from the resolution of conflict or ambiguity left by allowing the question to hang in the air? Pappano’s limp answer said it all.

****1