“I nearly went, there”, a commissioned work by the British-born composer, Edward Rushton, purportedly pays tribute to Gustav Mahler in compositional and contrapuntal form. The horns play a prominent role throughout, imaginatively reconstituting, says Rushton, horn parts that Mahler’s wife Alma found too pervasive in the huge symphony. Mahler later moderated them, we know; whether the Alma story is truth or legend is subject to debate.

Daniel Harding © Julian Hargreaves
Daniel Harding
© Julian Hargreaves

Undeniably, the London Symphony Orchestra produced a host of inordinate sounds for Rushton's work, showing the composer a master of colourful impulse and musical wit. At once the percussion claps, woodwinds take a tumble downwards as if a giant balloon were being deflated, and the violins flutter in a way that elicited real chuckles in Lucerne. I heard a frenzy of buzzing bees, machinations of the urban landscape, echoes of a frenzied housewife scurrying from job to job.

Where the short work shared commonalities with Mahler would be in the mood swings that move from the lyrical to the turbulent in short order, in the unexpected intervals, and in that turbulent slew of showy horns. Rushton’s Klangteppiche also came close to “covering” something of the human condition and social convention, just as Mahler aimed to incorporate the “whole world” into his symphonies. But to understand where Edward Rushton “nearly went” may be better left to future generations of concertgoers. In short, it was an enigmatic piece.

Second in the evening’s programme was Janine Jansen’s brilliant performance of Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E minor, the composer’s last large orchestral work. Atypically, the violin enters almost immediately, and Jansen was a strong force right out of the gate. The lower registers of her Stradivarius (“The Barrère”, 1727) showed its rich resonance best, but she produced exceedingly fragile sounds no less ably. At the end of the first movement, her final note seemed to verge on the celestial.

Further, Jansen leaned in close to the conductor as she played; at one point, his arm falling precariously short of her raised bow. She immersed herself fully in the orchestra’s space and interacted with the players there, her fresh green bodice-and-pleated-skirt moving like the tendril of a great spring sapling, her modulated sound, as close to discovering the Garden of Eden as one gets in a concert hall. If I may, I’ll use Rushton’s title to describe it…for speaking of Eden, “we nearly went there”.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony came after the interval. Arguably, any fine orchestra can rely on the “wow” factor when performing this work at the KKL. The Lucerne hall’s acoustics are world-class, and even the slightest whisper carries to the uppermost balcony, affectionately known by insiders as the “Paradiesli” (little Eden). Not surprisingly, the huge emotional scope and musical canvas of Mahler do superbly well here.

While the Fifth is one of the world’s most popular orchestral works today, it met with biting criticism when premiered in 1904. One lambasting reviewer cited a “whole angry order of instruments… stamped down into the very thick of the orchestral fray.” The disappointed Mahler − who had conducted − felt that “Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct it 50 years after my death.”

104 years later, and enter Maestro Daniel Harding. A fine-featured man, non-excitable in gesture, he pulls terrifically dynamic performances from his 100-plus players, and shows a sovereign understanding of the most complex scores. Nevertheless, I found his pacing in the Trauermarsch far too slow. Granted, an ache usually lasts too long, but the first movement gave me, anyway, something of an old workhorse plodding across an arid field. By contrast, the second movement made the strings’ pull-pull palpable; Harding’s direction even included a gestures like kneading bread, and the incomparable horn section came out to dazzle.

The Scherzo, a concession to the Vienna School aficionados who made up Mahler’s regular audience, was also stunning. The dialogue among instrument families saw the one seamlessly picking up a theme of the other, and the solo clarinet alone was worth the price of admission. The concertmaster's forever tweaking his glasses and fiddling with the mop of his hair was distracting, his soli were very fine.

The familiar Adagietto brought out the usual handkerchiefs, Harding accompanying its emotive swells with a soft-shoed step of his own. In the raised seating facing the conductor, a small boy draped over the balustrade also seemed mesmerized by the fourth movement. And his happy chattering after the musical explosions of the final Rondo showed that he had been taken “nearly there” too. One day, his generation may think of works like the Rushton earlier in the evening to be ahead of their time, just as we see now how right Mahler was: his symphony pointed to music that would only fully embrace us long after his death.