Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is a work about farewell, so it makes an appropriate work for Peter Oundjian to conduct as his final appearance as the RSNO’s Music Director. His performances of big symphonies have been, for me, the highlights of his time in Scotland. I’ve often been critical of him, but Mahler has been a strength of his. I wasn’t switched on his 2014 take on no. 8, but his performances of no. 2 and no. 3 really convinced me, as did his assaults on Bruckner and Shostakovich, both of which were very successful.

Peter Oundjian © Sian Richards
Peter Oundjian
© Sian Richards

In many ways, though, this performance summed up his time perfectly, both in its strengths and its weaknesses. The high point was the mighty first movement, which unfolded like a majestic sine wave, progressing from elation to devastation and back, between the violins’ sunlit D major and the stormy D minor that, eventually, overwhelmed the music, producing a moment of catastrophe that put me in mind of a horror film. When he’s at his best, Oundjian’s sense of musical architecture is really impressive, and he gave the impression of having thought this music through from the bottom up.

After that, though, doubts began to nag. It seems odd to criticise a piece of music for being too tight and too together, but that’s how the second movement sounded to me. Mahler’s final take on the Ländler needs to smack of impending danger and threat. He marks it to be played clumsy and coarse, after all, and I did like the way Oundjian’s fast tempo made the strings sound even more galumphing than normal. There was never any hint of imminent entropy, though; no sense that we were a hair’s breadth away from falling apart. After just a few moments I knew that everything was going to be OK, and that drained much of the excitement from the piece.

Conversely, the Rondo-Burleske wasn’t tight enough. The players were buried in their scores and there wasn’t enough of a sense of bite or the defiant energy that Mahler calls for. Instead, sections were cloudy around the outside and bled into one another, when what you need is pinprick accuracy. This movement needs to sound as though it has the energy and precision of a sports car, but I never felt that it was secure enough to properly grit its teeth.

The string sound for the finale was an engulfing wash, as it should be, and Oundjian shaped it all comfortably enough. But when should this music ever sound comfortable? He seemed to be leading the orchestra on a super-accurate run through the notes, but the energy and the passion seemed held at a distance, as though we were watching it through a glass screen. And the incredible final pages, where Mahler tremblingly gives himself up to death, proceeded in a manner that was dangerously close to banality.

The orchestral playing was great throughout. Principal brass solos were (as always) superb, and the strings sounding like a multi-layered crack team of experts, shading everything with beautiful precision that I know doesn’t happen by accident. For me, that speaks of Oundjian’s skill as an orchestra-builder, surely one of his key strengths, and it’s a shame that this didn’t come out more frequently in the heat of performance over the last six years. So as his time in Scotland comes to an end both he and the orchestra are bound to look back with fairly mixed feelings: with gratitude for his sense of direction but, surely, also a reflection on some missed opportunities.

One thing we can be pretty sure of is that their future looks promising. Thomas Søndergård takes over as the Music Director in September and, as I’ve said before, I’m a big fan. Next season looks to be the start of something exciting.