REVIEW: The Mahler Players – Mahler's Ninth Symphony
St Andrew’s Cathedral, Inverness
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by Margaret Chrystall
IT was emotional, hearing the Mahler Players’ performance of the composer’s Ninth Symphony in Inverness Cathedral on Saturday.
"There will be people in the audience who have known this symphony longer than some of us have been alive and others who will never have heard it before," said the group’s leader and conductor Tomas Leakey in his introduction.
And in his programme notes, Tomas revealed that the group considers the symphony "one of the pinnacles of the repertoire" and that it has been their ambition to perform it since they got together three years ago.
Maybe that was one reason for the electric sense of anticipation as the cathedral’s pews filled up and the moments counted down to the opening of the four movements of the epic Ninth Symphony and what has been called Mahler’s "dark night of the soul".
Tomas’s programme notes only further whetted the appetite if, like me, you were one of those hearing the symphony for the first time. The symphony has divided critics – on Mahler’s intention in writing the symphony’s music, at least, if not in their almost universal praise.
When writing the Ninth, was Mahler already overtaken with the spirit of his not-distant death – or was his purpose to emphasise the joy of life or "visions of the hereafter", as composer Allan Berg believed he saw in a reprise of the first movement opening with flute, horn and lower strings?
In the second movement – Im tempo – raw, ugly life with the clumsy peasant dance sound and strings’ bouncing bows seems to be celebrated defiantly – after the funereal moments of the first movement – with four different kinds of dance form and changes of tempo – and key.
And in the third movement, the Rondo-Burleske, would you be able to hear the music referred to in the programme’s quoted remark by musicologist Deryck Cooke – the "contrived chaos" that seemed like "fiendish laughter" at the futility of life, the mocking sound of the clarinet against what Cooke referred to as Mahler’s most modern movement.
The sheer power of the music caused your eyes to unexpectedly fill up a few times - or be darting around the back of the stage with well-occupied percussionist Alison Russell on cymbals, drums, triangle, xylophone and tubular bells.
But most of all, the challenge was to keep your ears listening out for all of it as a first-timer.
Barring the very occasional intonation glitch, the 24 musicians’ instrument "voices" were clear and confident throughout. Each added their colour in Klaus Simon’s arrangement for chamber group, maybe the cathedral’s echoing acoustics also swelling the sound to suggest a much bigger group at times.
And the performance offered a lesson in honouring dynamics from musicians and conductor engineering teeth-rattling louds and barely-audible quiets.
But from the start, your imagination was playing as hard as your ears were working.
Around three minutes into the first movement, the syncopated set of notes from the horns bizarrely time-travelled you into Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue. But instead of American skyscrapers and trains building themselves in front of you through the music, Mahler’s music rolled out the 20th century to come when he wrote it – good and bad, war and misery, invention and achievement.
And as the end-to-end bowing of the lush string sound began the fourth movement – signalling the symphony’s world beginning to draw to a close – the musicians who had been our travelling companions for the 80something-minute experience played at their most sure-footed, sensitive, and commited.
The "almost hymn-like" passages of the Adagio contrasted with agitated brass and percussion flurries till the strings fluidly eased us into the famous sinking pianissimo that fades into the long descent to silence.
You couldn’t help holding your breath, every muscle tense as the conductor softened his arm movements, guiding the musicians into the last bars of the piece like the captain of a plane hovering us inches above the runway before executing a perfect, smooth landing – all of us freeze-framed together in silence for a few moments.
"We hope it is as special for you, our audience," Tomas had written at the top of the programme about the symphony that had been so significant for the musicians from the start of the project.
It is, thanks to a performance full of passion and colour.