Any Mahler symphony is a substantial undertaking of a lengthy and complex work. But the Sixth Symphony, according to Jukka-Pekka Saraste, is the most unrelenting: a work that grabs you from the outset, raises your heart rate and never lets it fall until the very last note. Last night, in bringing this rendering of the work to reality, Saraste had two willing partners: the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, and the Göteborg Konserthus itself.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste © Felix Broede
Jukka-Pekka Saraste
© Felix Broede

The acoustic of the hall is unique. At 1,300 seats, it’s relatively small, there is very little rake and you are seated inside a giant eggshell of acoustically treated maple and sycamore panels. The result is a hall which is very acoustically lively indeed: the immense tutti of a full Mahlerian orchestra get seriously loud, but with the correct level of control, it permits excellent definition of all the instruments.

The first movement of the Sixth opens with a pulsating line in the double basses which immediately propels the music forward. The symphony is labelled “tragic,” but for the greater part of the work, it strikes me more as “heroic”: a great deal of the music speaks of struggle and battle: real battle, as opposed to Mahler’s childhood fetish of the town square military parade. The overall structure of the first movement is clear: the movement returns frequently to an imposing motif said to represent fate which comprises an A major to A minor chord change, and there’s even a long repeat to help your ear be familiar with the main themes. But within that straightforward broad structure, there’s a bewildering wealth of detail in which an individual instrument often takes a theme for just a few notes before handing it to the next. The brightness of the hall meant that we could hear each one of those instruments with great clarity, so there was high pressure on solo instrumentalists to perform. And perform they did: my ears were continually struck by some particularly well turned phrase.

My only unmet wish – and this is a matter of personal taste rather than an objective criticism – was for more rhapsody in Alma’s theme: rather than giving us a bit of abandonment, Saraste maintained the underlying threat throughout. There was a similar approach in the second movement Scherzo and Trio (Saraste preferring the order of Mahler’s original composition to his subsequent revision in which the Scherzo and Andante are reversed). The Scherzo is a biting and sarcastic passage which utterly subverts any optimism in the ending of the first movement. Again, the double basses were prominent with highly marked sforzando rhythms, while woodwinds screamed and horns either laid a firm foundation, or brayed in anger. The Trio can provides relaxation, but in Saraste’s approach, the release is limited and the tension ever present.

After more genuine respite in the cantabile of the andante – beautiful and lyrical, yet still with augmented chords and chromatic shifts which keep you slightly on your guard – it was time for the finale: a massive movement which can easily degenerate into chaos. Control over orchestral dynamics, especially the balance between brass and strings, is essential. The score of the finale is littered with markings telling the conductor not to force the music too hard (“nicht eilen”, “nicht drängend”, “nicht schleppend”): it’s almost as if Mahler was frightened of the intensity of his own creation. Saraste didn’t seem to pay much attention to these: rather, he produced a steady ratcheting up of stress, such that ten minutes into the movement, I felt as if I was being physically pushed back into my seat. Partly, this was a matter of individual virtuosity producing a multiplicity of textures and moods: I was particularly struck by an eerie feel imparted by harp arpeggios and celesta, and by an other worldly combination of a soft but pressing horn section coupled with single low-register notes plucked fortissimo on the harp. And of course, there are those celebrated three hammer blows of fate, each one seeming to come from nowhere to make the hall shake.

The end, as the beginning, belonged to the double basses, as their scurrying figures collapsed down to a single, quiet, devastating, pizzicato thump. When the applause – with every single person in the audience on its feet – had died down, we turned to a neighbour and asked if he could speak English. “After such a concert,” he replied in perfect English, “I can’t speak anything.”