Mahler Six – a triumph not a tragedy

My girlfriend is simply the best. She knows what I like and she knows that I love Mahler, so she paid for a couple of seats for us at the Royal Centre in Nottingham last night so that I could listen to the BBC Philharmonic playing Mahler’s sixth symphony.

His sixth symphony is coined “Tragic”. Some might argue that all of Mahler’s symphonys might be considered to be a little depressing but this was the first that Mahler actually composed with tragedy in mind. I personally find most of Mahler’s work to be filled with depictions of love – even the sixth – but I can understand why some people might find his work a little on the heavy-going side. I think that Mahler, more than any composer before him, used enormous variations in mood in his music – from utter fragility and beauty to violent outburts and stormy brass-infused passages.

The Tragic Symphony continues his mastery of emotional symphonic work. It’s an incredible masterpiece that switches constantly between major and minor keys in a lengthy battle against tragic consequences.

I was pleased that the BBC Philharmonic would be performing this work. They’re probably one of the best orchestras in the country and I’d not heard them before. Their conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, was completely mesmerising to watch. I don’t think I’d ever seen a more energetic musical director – he was jumping around all over the place, drawing every possible nuance out of the music. During some of the more energetic moments I could have sworn he was performing some starjumps!  His control of the orchestra during the quieter, more delicate moments was utterly masterful even if the louder, dramatic parts caused him to swing his arms around in a rather violent fashion. I’ve never seen anything like him before.

The orchestra was just astonishing. Apart from a few fluffed notes by the top horn the performance was faultless. Noseda extracted a wonderfully interpretted performance from his players – I had a big smile on my face most of the way through. The stunningly beautiful third movement gave me constant goosebumps and brought tears of joy to me eyes.

The final movement is an utter monster – 30 minutes of fraught emotion. I was on the edge of my seat all the way through. The percussion were fantastic and it was great to see the famous “hammer blows” in action – one of the seven percussionists wielded an impressively large wooden sledgehammer for the two key moments in the last movement. The impact (he slammed it into a large wooden box) was incredible combined with cymbols and bass drum – you could feel the blow through to your bones. Fantastic stuff.

The Royal Centre itself provided a very pleasant location for this concert. It’s seen better days but still has a very impressive auditorium. The orchestra had a wonderfully rich, full sound. We were up in the Gods on Tier Two but it sounded great up there. It’s a shame that the seats weren’t especially comfortable – you need a comfortable chair whilst spending the best part of 70 minutes or so listening to the greatest composer that ever lived!

Another of the world’s greatest composers was on display before the symphony. The orchestra also performed Mozart’s third violin concerto with the gorgeous and spectacularly talented Nicola Benedetti giving a wonderfully nuanced performance of this entertaining piece of music. It was interesting having the Mozart before Mahler. It was very well played and I enjoyed Nicola’s performance very much, but the whole piece just seemed a little inconsequential in comparison to the Mahler. Mozart inserts so many different themes into his music sometimes that it doesn’t quite gel quite so well for me. Still, Mozart wrote this in his late teens and was decades (if not a century) before his time in musical style.

I had a wonderful evening, even if Jo wasn’t so keen. Mahler and Mozart really aren’t her cup of tea but you’ve got to love someone that makes the effort to come along and sit through such a lengthy musical experience while getting back pain from sitting on an uncomfortable seat.

This was a superb event and I’ll be sure to go back to the Royal Centre soon. I hear that the Rite of Spring is on next year and I’ll definitely be going along to listen to that.

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