Mahler: Symphony no. 6 in A Minor

Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Denève

Usher Hall, 18 March 2010 5 stars

Stephane Deneve

Word is getting around that Mr Denève is developing the RSNO into a unit of international calibre. An almost-capacity Usher Hall audience was treated to a glorious exhibition of orchestral performance at its finest, a truly spectacular blaze of passionate intensity, fitting for Mahler at his most ambitious and grandiose.

Eighteen months ago, I witnessed Denève's reading of the fifth—and was impressed. But tonight's performance went some way further in realising a richness of detail and coordination while sustaining a consistency of tone and ensemble among the vastly expanded forces that has often in the past been a point of vulnerability. The result, a triumphant vindication for all the undoubted hard work, was a totally engrossing immersion in the Mahlerian imagination.

As an intriguing sideshow, Denève elected to examine the longstanding controversy regarding the inner movement order by performing the Andante before the Scherzo in Glasgow, while reversing them for Edinburgh. This is a difficult question to arbitrate. I am inclined to agree with Jerry Bruck and Reinhold Kubik, who argue on historical grounds that Mahler's clear intention was for the Andante to precede the Scherzo. However, it seems that either approach has some musical merits and demerits; some dramatic merits and demerits; and some historical merits and demerits.

Indeed, these three factors are enmeshed in the evaluating of the work as a whole. What is its place in the Mahlerian psychodrama? Is it, ultimately, a success or does it fall short of its ambition? Ultimately, I suppose, the question is whether a work of this scale challenges the composer's capacity to know his own mind; whether the composer who completed the work is the same person as the one who began it.

Having observed the sixth symphony's genesis from her privileged domestic position, Mahler's wife Alma became the reef on which Erwin Ratz (editor of the Mahler Critical Edition after WWII) anchored his arguments in favour of the Scherzo-Andante order. She had been contacted for clarification by a conductor a few years after Mahler's death, and her telegram in response supported Ratz. It seems that Mahler first began working on the Scherzo and the Andante before turning to the outer movements, and bringing the work to performance had this order in mind. Once he decided in rehearsal to reverse the order, he never subsequently reverted. Was Alma returning to a point of discussion in her telegram—not the most eloquent of communicative forms? She was, after all, a capable musician who was taking composition lessons from Zemlinsky when Mahler first met her.

There are other ghosts besides Alma confusing the picture, particularly that of Beethoven's ninth. On the one hand it sets a precedent for the unusual movement order; on the other, should the idea of reversing Beethoven's order ever occur to someone, the anticipation of the finale in the Scherzo's trio and coda would be rendered pointless. Invert that observation, and you have a sense of the musical argument in favour of Mahler's expressed preference. True, the transition from Allegro to Andante is neither harmonically nor motivically elegant, but that deficit is soon forgotten. Following the Allegro with the Scherzo, the immediate sense created is a bizarre one, of a Satie-like return to examine an idea from a fresh perspective, a sort of Mahlerian groundhog day.

What of the symphony as a whole? It is of course vastly impressive, but self-consciously impressive, even self-parodyingly so. For instance, the opening theme asserts, reasserts, and again reasserts the tonic with a despotism backed by the driving military trope that frames it. And yet the phase closes with bassoon mordants that have become, in our visually-dominated media age, the signature of the schlemiel. Shelley's Ozymandias, with his feet of clay, springs to mind.

In keeping with this grandiose seriousness, Mahler's usual comfortable interplay between formal craft and folk idiom is severely curtailed—sublimated, one might say, in the timbres of the offstage cowbells. Compared to the plasticity of the fifth, the sixth seems curiously foursquare, as though the composer is simultaneously conscious of his public status as Hofoper director, and his social exposure, through marriage, to the city's youthful avant garde.

Denève's opening tempo was at the brisk end of the spectrum, the sheer spectacle and energy of the vast orchestra preparing to perform being instantly harnessed and pushed into a relentless drive across the Allegro's huge arc towards its tremendous climax. Repeatedly, transitions yielded organically in an impressive display of finely sculpted phrasing. I was sat on the edge of my seat right the way through till the Andante.

Things didn't fall apart in the finale, though there was a brief shaky point just before the end. Attention focused on the hammer blows, another focus of debate in the symphony's offstage life. The score calls for a hammer, which falls in two places in the authorized version. Mahler cut and reorchestrated a third blow, and some conductors restore it. The trouble is that it is a conceptual hammer-blow. It is difficult to realize an effect that needs to outdo a full-sized bass drum without an element of pantomime. Frankly, the RSNO's giant hammer, borrowed from a fairground test-your-strength game, looked so comical—like something from a silent movie—as to distract from the dramatic effect instead of reinforcing it. Maybe swinging it like a cricket bat would get the job done more effectively. In any case, the orchestration surrounding the blows is tremendously effective as one would expect, and the final stroke, when it came, resonated searingly for several seconds beyond the close before rapturous applause erupted.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Stephane Denève by J. Henry Fair

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