With Storm Dennis raging outside the Sheldonian, what would be more appropriate inside than a spot of Mahler to accompany the tempest? And indeed the composer's instruction for the second movement: 'Etwas tappisch und sehr derb' [somewhat clumsy and very rough] does rather summon up Shakespeare's magician on his post-tempest island.
But this was the Ninth Symphony, containing both an Adagio and an Andante movement, so constant fireworks were not on the menu, though with an orchestra numbering 83, including five percussionists and two harps, we surely had the firepower for them. The opening notes for cello and horns found awkwardness of playing from the latter (atypical, since the horns thereafter were very good; particularly their section leader Benjamin Hartnell-Booth) and then we were away with strings and massed brass. The trumpets with mutes had plenty of work soon enough – one of their number, Nick Budd, wrote the laudably copious programme notes, full of imaginative speculation about Mahler's references to life, death and the universe. The tuba player Nick Ingram was also busy with a huge mute that looked a bit like the 1968 Apollo Programme lunar module. The coda to the movement is remarkable in that Mahler fines down his orchestra to chamber music size, as though tacitly admitting that by this late stage of his career he no longer needed enormous resources to express himself adequately.
I was interested in the approach of conductor Natalia Luis-Bassa who holds posts, among others, at Wellington College and the Royal College of Music. I've seen her described as 'dynamic' and 'flamboyant' but here her approach was low-key, minimalist even; employing truncated gesture, seemingly more focused on macro concerns like tempo and rhythm than in micro-directing the sub-sections of the orchestra.
The great spans of the two outer movements, on occasion erupting in monumental climaxes with dynamic contrast, complement each other, but the intention of the two inner ones remains enigmatic. The Rondo Burlesque often runs along at a fairly furious pace, and our young players demonstrated they were not at all fazed by the required virtuosity. The middle passage featured high string tremolandos and flutter-tongued flutes (a little scratchy in tone here). The hushed intensity of the final Adagio, its beginning suggesting clear links to the famous Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, offers fine scope to the violins. It was interesting to observe how, at the introduction of the second theme, the first violinists applied individually quite widely varying degrees of vibrato to the strings. When they were joined by full brass and woodwinds, the packed tiers of Sheldonian audience were reminded how no orchestra but Mahler's ever sounds quite like this, as we swept on to the conclusion full of glowing optimism.
So here was a concert to warm the cockles of the heart on a wild evening, particularly since Sarah Jenkinson and her acolytes always offer a wide-smiling welcome. Next up at the Sheldonian is the OU Philharmonia this Thursday, with Sibelius and Grieg.