This sole Festival appearance by one of the world’s great orchestras, playing a massive symphony by a great composer, was something of a disappointment, though loudly applauded by a packed audience.
The disappointment was not centred on the players. They were outstanding, with the large number of violins, almost too good a times, overpowering entries from other sections (except the tremendous tympani). Gatti has an assured reputation as a Mahler conductor but his interpretation on this occasion lacked conviction.
The symphony itself is strange. Written by Mahler in emotional turmoil after the death of his daughter and knowing that he had a fatal heart disease, the music is generally regarded as depicting the many aspects of life and a resigned farewell to it.
The first movement, nearly as long as some entire symphonies, was full of different themes. Solemn doleful notes were accentuated by recurrent low drum beats. Limpid strings were ousted by emphatic strident brass in fearsome, almost cacophonic blasts of ear-splitting sound, before being subsumed near the end by a solo violin recalling joyful memories.
This opening section has hints of modernity largely absent from the second and third movements. In particular, Gatti’s handling of traces of Austrian folk dance and parodic phrasing was heavy-handed just where a light touch was needed.
The third movement, with sheer volume of brass, an effective pause before a short violin entry, and melodious force from all 70 strings, built up a shattering climax.
The intensity of the final Adagio was finely controlled. Gatti’s outstretched baton exacted a forceful crescendo and moving cello lament before coaxing quiescent strings int contemplative sound that had a tense audience holding its breath during the gradual descent into silence.
Event: Friday 30 August at 8pm