Rattle and the LSO in Mahler’s Ninth

There can hardly be a more appropriate work to display Simon Rattle’s talents than Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, with its combination of foreboding, wry parody of Ländler, cynically extrovert and sentimental take on orchestral romanticism and the final passive and very moving acceptance of reduction to nothingness. Yet when he and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican embarked on the first movement, was I alone in being slow to navigate across the Mahlerian world? Did the feeling of disorientation, of not knowing to where the sighs and heartbeats and lonely violin solo were leading come directly from the score? Or was Rattle deliberately making it difficult for us to find our way? I am tempted to hold to the latter, because it suited the narrative as, in the subsequent movements, the path from trivial matter-of-factness through extrovert gushing sentimentality to introspective, spiritual calm became entirely clear.

It is difficult to avoid cliché when writing about Rattle. He is a phenomenon and yes, while typically one is suspicious of performers who get the degree of adulation and razzmatazz that he does, I have to admit that each time that I have heard him live I have left the performance with the conviction that the accolades are entirely justified. So, at this concert, the precise articulation of orchestral phrasing, to reinforce the dramatic journey described above, gave the impression that one had not heard the composition before. Then there was the perfect pacing of the music which rendered the climaxes and the lulls between them so satisfying. And finally, the excitement with, and not, against his showmanship.

It is a long time since I have heard a British orchestra play with such excellence as the LSO under its new director. We are used to virtuosity in woodwind and brass, but when have a full body of strings managed such an exquisite sound as in the long drawn-out pianissimi which ends the piece?

An utterly memorable evening.