Rotterdam’s annual Gergiev Festival is a very popular classical festival in The Netherlands and with good reason, their programs are always excellent and the appearance of former chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Valery Gergiev usually attracts big crowds. The theme this year’s festival “the sea”, indubitably inspired by Rotterdam’s famous port and its connection to the sea and water in general. The works of this evening may not at first sight seem to be fit within this theme, there is no obvious connection but there was definitely a coherence to the evening that seemed to fit the larger theme of the festival. The sea is not only a source of calm, sweeping waves but it is also a threatening, complex creature, full of both attractive and terrifying elements, a source of pleasure and sometimes even a source of death. These different elements can be heard in the three pieces of the evening, the serenity of Wagner’s Lohegrin makes way for the more treacherous and exhilarating music of Britten’s Death in Venice, which in turn paves the way for Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – a work in which the darker sides of the sea can be found.

The overture from Wagner’s Lohengrin was a beautiful and scene-setting start of the evening. There was a clarity in the music, yet it still remained mysterious and incredibly atmospheric. It is a piece that is very simply beautiful in many ways, the sweeping strings and the grandiose brass section, but there is a real sense of mystery as well. Britten’s Death in Venice orchestral suite was in many ways a different beast altogether. The serenity of the Wagner piece was nowhere to be found; instead we heard a very vivacious work with as many ominous as fairytale-like moments. Yet the playful moments in the music did not seem entirely genuine, and one could sense an undercurrent of something more ominous, similar to the mysterious aspects of the Lohengrin overture that left you wondering.

The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra has a very rich Mahler-tradition and Valery Gergiev is an indispensible part of this tradition. Today’s performance of the Symphony No.9 showed us why, as the Rotterdam Philharmonic gave a great performance. The symphony was written in 1908 after a particularly difficult time in Mahler’s life. Although many of Mahler’s works are about death, this Ninth Symphony seems to be one of the most despairing of all. It does have its moments of relief: the second movement in particular is a ländler-like dance that almost seems upbeat, but not quite. There is, like in the Britten piece, a constant haunting atmosphere.

There were two highlights to this performance of Mahler’s Ninth; the third movement and the beautiful ending of the fourth. The third movement was played fast and loud, but never too fast or too loud, still keeping in mind the nuance that is so essential to Mahler. But the orchestra played with their hearts on their sleeves and Gergiev lead them to great heights. They seemed to thrive on making the music as loud as possible, which may have been inappropriate with some symphonies but certainly not this evening, and certainly not this symphony. By playing it in this way, not only did the music become more exciting at times, it also emphasized the quiet moments and in particular the ending. The ending of Mahler’s Ninth is famously moving, it sounds almost like a literal dying. The Rotterdam Philharmonic and Gergiev made those last minutes count, creating a beautiful and memorable ending to an evening of intense music-making and listening.