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S & H Concert Review

Mahler, Symphony No.9 in D major, London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, Barbican, 3rd November 2002 (MB)


Exactly an hour into this performance, the first concert in Michael Tilson Thomas’ ‘Last Works’ series with the London Symphony Orchestra, I found myself asking this question: when we cease to be moved by a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony have we finally become tired of music itself? It was the only comment I made in my programme notes throughout the entire 90 minutes.

The problem was not just that this was the most pedestrian performance of the symphony I have heard in many years. The problem was that the London Symphony Orchestra were so soulless and emotionless in their playing that I found it difficult to equate this orchestra with performances of this work which I have heard them give under Maazel and Rattle and which, if nothing else, at least suggested some affinity with Mahler’s most profound symphony. The degree of detachment was simply disturbing.

The conductor must share a large burden of the responsibility for this. His opening andante was taken inordinately slowly and rather than take the movement in a single defined arc Tilson Thomas assembled it like a jigsaw. Over 29 long minutes the conductor constantly thwarted any attempt by the orchestra to project any sense of melody (the aura of skeletal tonelessness becoming intensely anodyne over the movement’s development); worse was the piece-meal fashion in which Tilson Thomas constructed the climaxes of the movement: the volcanic violence which precipitates the transition to the third, militaristic funeral interlude, for example, was as disjointed as any I have ever heard.

Both the Scherzo and the Burlesque suffered from the ‘ordinariness’ of the conductor’s vision. There is a clear difference between making the peasant dances of the scherzo sound rustic and making them sound authentically rustic. It was typical of this performance that the orchestra just played the notes – where, for example, was the pedantry, where was the grotesqueness? The Rondo was taken at a tempo other than ‘defiant’ – ‘Sehr trotzig’ Mahler heads the score. The problem here was that when the second episode arrived Tilson Thomas had to vary the tempo so dramatically that the movement staggered to a halt. What should have been a transitory expression in preparation for the Adagio-Finale became something much more symbolic.

What almost rescued this performance was the conductor’s handling of the Adagio-Finale. In contrast to the first movement, which sounded interminable under the weight of its tempo, the Adagio had a breathless momentum which belied its actual timing – 31 minutes. If occasionally Tilson Thomas allowed the brass to over project this was tempered by some beautifully toned string playing – although quite why he lengthened some short notes at the expense of others remains baffling (in the first bar, for example, the seventh note was inappropriately lengthened). Yet, this was a beautifully proportioned reading with some heartfelt playing. And not before time.

Tilson Thomas’ ‘Last Works’ series continues on 6th, 7th 16th and 17th November.

Marc Bridle

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