The programming for this concert from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Daniel Harding could not have been more apt. As the world mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the inclusion of Mahler’s Symphony no. 9 and Mais le corps taché d’ombre, by the young Dutch composer Rick van Veldhuizenboth works exploring death and the disintegration of life, brought a certain solemnity to the performance.

Daniel Harding
© Julian Hargreaves

We were immediately thrust into the quasi electronic/white noise world of van Veldhuizen in his piece for harp and strings. The opening chord was a shock with the very percussive sounding harp. A more lyrical cello and viola passage gave a faint glimmer of hope amongst this world of torment and grief. It was left to a final lilting waltz, complete with an ascending harp glissando, to suggest a journey into a higher world, one free from pain.

Mahler’s Symphony no. 9 is a deeply personal exploration of death; it was his last complete symphony and only received its premier after his death. After a slightly shaky start to the slow, funeral march-like first movement, the ship was steadied with the entry of the violin melody and brass chords, and the tension in the hall eased. The luscious strings displayed great control in a score rich in dynamics and textural instructions. But death was never far away.

The brass were magnificent: the horn’s insistent sighing motif, the trombones and tuba foreshadowing of imminent doom and the searing precision from the first trumpet were all glorious. The wind interlude with abundant flute trills gave a moment of meandering tonality only for the triangle to signal a return to pain and torment. Rising harp arpeggios accompanying a horn choral eventually led to a magical moment of peace.

The second movement, a leisurely ländler, found a rustic tempo, only to be interrupted by an incredibly resonant triangle, heralding a change of mood to a quieter and more reserved waltz section. Throaty clarinets responded to cheeky ascending bassoon motifs. The playful mood continued and a rising piccolo figure brought a snigger and a smile to many in the audience.

Entitled Rondo Burleske, the third movement unleashed a moment of joy, and we were treated to some quite stunning playing from Omar Tomasoni, the principal trumpet, who played with such lightness, depth of emotion and precision that members of the audience were visibly moved. A contrapuntal end allowed all to shine and even the timpani with its three-note motif contributed valiantly to this creation of chaos.

A wonderfully sonorous violin opening to the fourth movement welcomed a moment of luscious tonality, of ease and security, and it was here that the second violins really found their voice and the sound was fabulously rich. The first horn soared as contrapuntal strings offered a glimpse of an ethereal life to come. But all was not to be. Time stood still as the harp and wind meandered in a world of chromaticism. The solo cello with its haunting descending motif suggested hope; the glissando violins swept us gently to a place of calm tranquillity. The violas sealed our fate.

In the silence, we were left to ponder our destiny and perhaps even the question of our own mortality as Mahler had over a century ago. It is documented that Alma, Mahler’s wife, believed that he had jinxed himself in the writing of this work, but what a gift this symphony is to the world, a gift which the Royal Concertgebouw will take on tour around Europe and the Middle East later this season.