Mahler’s Symphony no. 6 in A minor is a brutal work. Its 90 minutes of music is constantly intense even by Mahler’s standards – demanding for the listener, demanding for the orchestra, a giant workout for the conductor and an unremitting test for the acoustics of the hall. It’s a symphony that can be outstanding experience, but only if a very large number of things come together. At the Barbican last night, the London Symphony Orchestra and Antonio Pappano showed some of the right elements, but not enough: only occasionally was the overall performance lifted from the “thoroughly competent” to the exceptional.

Sir Antonio Pappano © Musacchio Ianniello | Warner Classics
Sir Antonio Pappano
© Musacchio Ianniello | Warner Classics

The LSO are a great orchestra: this was evident from the pure sound quality of each group of instruments. You couldn’t fault string ensemble or togetherness; every woodwind instrument sounded pure and colourful, the brass instruments rounded and imposing. The Sixth gives the low instruments their chance to shine, and all of tuba, contrabassoon and double basses demonstrated what great players they are. But to have its full effect, Mahler’s score demands a precision that was too often missing: when a phrase crosses multiple instrument groups, the boundary has to be seamless to avoid losing momentum, and too often, a transition wasn’t quite on the nail. The A major to minor shift that recurs through the symphony needs perfect balance: last night, the minor chord kept getting slightly buried, losing its effect.

Pappano is a great conductor: you can see this from the energy which he transmits to his performers and the detail which he adjusts his movement to the demands of the music. Many passages were very effective, especially the slow third movement which provided the lyrical haven that is much needed after the hard driving first and second movements. But the opening, which sets the scene for the whole symphony, was not good: the tempo kept seeming to hurry slightly faster than the musicians would have liked. There were issues of balance, with subtle instruments like the harp going missing in the orchestral wash. Much of the time, the orchestral sound was rather muddy. Partly, that’s down to the hall: the Barbican is a decent concert hall, but lacks the sort of top-notch acoustic quality that would make every note distinctive in such a powerful symphony.

I’m not convinced that a symphony of the scale of Mahler 6 benefits from a curtain-raiser, but if you needs must have one, Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1 will do as well as any: it’s broadly compatible with the Mahler in terms of period and size of orchestra, with an alternation between the lyrical and the manic which goes some way to offsetting Mahler’s single-minded stare into the abyss. Viktoria Mullova has an engaging stage presence: no fuss, no histrionics, just total commitment to the music. She was at her best in the pensive meanderings of the first movement Nocturne, music to calm the soul on a summer evening. She produced a lovely sweetness of tone, using a fair amount of vibrato but not overpoweringly so, the dynamic accentuation coming late in the movement but worth waiting for. The slow third movement Passacaglia was similarly successful, but the faster movements less so. Shostakovich is manic enough in the second movement Scherzo and downright mental in the final Burlesca: Mullova played with humour and lightness of touch, but didn’t summon up the required degree of frantic energy. Given that Pappano and the LSO were going hell for leather, she was rather subdued beneath the orchestra.

In sum, a concert with two great works, each performed with thorough competence, but each a fraction short of the sublime.