Not a tear fell while I listened to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under the guidance of Vasily Petrenko as they performed for the first time in the Philharmonic’s history the entire 10th Symphony by Gustav Mahler. There were moments when I was overcome with emotion but I managed to hold it together and not embarrass myself or David.
I was saddened to see that on both performances of Mahler’s 10th, the hall wasn’t full to capacity! I wonder what made the organisers put on two shows rather than one? I wish they had done the same for Mahler’s 8th last year, then I may not have been stuck at the back of the Anglican Cathedral and upsettingly witness someone in the audience keel over! However, as there were no heads in front of me, I had a great view of the orchestra and of Vasily in this special performance.
I listened to the broadcast of the first show on BBC Radio Three on Thursday and I, with a nice glass of Pinot Grigio succumbed to the wonderful orchestration of Mahler’s unfinished symphony, completed by Deryck Cooke. The Philharmonic’s command of the Adagio (1st movement) was simply breath-taking. I believe I had not heard it played with so much depth of emotion before. The sound was so clear even streaming through broadband!
And so for Saturday’s performance. David and I, wrapped up from the chilling wind that brought with it Spring snow the day before, made our way to the Philharmonic Hall. We gingerly watched for ice underfoot as we caught the 86 bus and was transported smoothly for our date with Mahler!
I have been attending the Philharmonic in Liverpool for nearly 20 years now and have listened to Mahler being performed countless times. It was my first on hearing his 10th being played though. With excited butterflies in my tummy, the lights in the auditorium fell and the brilliant (almost too bright) spotlight lit up the orchestra as Vasily walked on stage with baton in hand. There was a collected intake of breath from the audience as the first bars of the Adagio were played. I love watching the sections of an orchestra as they come together and it’s only with Mahler symphonies that the percussion section seem to entertain most of all. David said he liked the soaring strings in the romantic Adagio the best. I noticed how Vasily would raise his hands to the heavens almost as if beseeching Mahler’s spirit to come amongst us as his music drifted into the ether. Norman Lebrecht in his blog post describes a conductor approaching a performance of Mahler’s 10th Symphony as ‘the maestro, for that hour-plus,’ has ‘to be Mahler.’ Therefore perhaps Vasily was indeed channelling the spirit of Mahler? During the two Scherzo’s Vasily seemed to take on the persona of a demented fiend, jerking about like a man possessed. He would raise his fist to the orchestra who in turn would challenge him in their playful audacity. As the drum of fate boomed around the auditorium the conductor seemed to shiver as if in fear. The only comic relief to be had was during the ländler where the orchestra played light-heartedly and Vasily shook his booty on the podium!
Then the soul tormenting Finale came. It’s a piece of music that usually renders me in tears. Thankfully this evening it wasn’t the case, though the screeching strings and then the soft sighing of the woodwind tugged at the heart. Catherine Jones of the Liverpool Echo in her review said there were some tonality issues, but none that could detract from the poignancy of the music being performed. Vasily seemed to have tightened up the brass section since the first performance and they played with unparalleled confidence. As the final note of Mahler’s 10th faded, Vasily paused while the rawness of the performance was absorbed by the audience. The young conductor fell back upon the rail of his podium as if overcome with emotion and sheer exhaustion of the piece. With baton lowered he invited the audience to show their appreciation, a few rose to their feet. Vasily came onto the podium twice more to accept praise where it was due. He also seemed subdued, placing his hand to his heart in gratitude. The applause was understated, perhaps due to the fact that Mahler’s 10th is a symphony largely forgotten or maybe the powerful emotions performed for over an hour subdued the audience? Either way they milled out of the hall silently, thoughtfully.
I really wish that the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic would release a recording of their rendition of Mahler’s 10th Symphony. I believe it was one of the best, if not the best I have heard it performed! Norman Lebrecht also mentioned in his blog that Vasily would be repeating his version of Mahler’s 10th ‘next year with the Philharmonia in London and the radio orchestra in Berlin,’ something to look forward to then.