Classical: A free flow towards rapture

WHEN MAHLER said that the symphony should be all-embracing, like the world, he was presumably not thinking of digital watches and mobile phones. Their presence (sounding off, for the record, at 9pm and 9.15 respectively) during last Thursday's performance of his First Symphony certainly stretched the limits of the famous Mahlerian irony.

It also made you wonder what type of person comes to the Albert Hall to disrupt classical music. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, whose concert it was, will doubtless find out more on this subject in due course. Thursday evening was the first shot of their "Mahler Spectacle" which will include performances of his complete orchestral and vocal works, spread over two years.

From now until November we have the first three symphonies, with Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Das Klagende Lied in its original version. By then, the orchestra will know what kind of audience it is getting, and whether the gamble of a Mahler cycle looks set to be a winner.

If it succeeds, it will be despite an inauspicious debut.Thursday's start to the series was uncomfortably partial, beginning with the bad visual pun of a pair of wire-framed Mahlerian lunettes to illustrate the programme cover. More importantly, the readings themselves were not of the kind to foster a racing pulse.

Though baritone Andreas Schmidt sang the first six Wunderhorn songs with feeling, their full effect was badly communicated in a darkened hall that added to the low-key sense of the songs' funereal bearing.

RPO Music Director Dan- iele Gatti's reading of the First Symphony after the interval was good in parts.

Wind and strings projected the lucid scoring of scherzo and slow movement to the back of the hall with pleasing clarity but his main problem was with his own tempi, which in the outer movements threatened to strangle the music.

By Sunday, however, and the second instalment of the series, things had improved. Continuing Des Knaben Wunder- horn, Schmidt and soprano Ruth Ziesak touched the core of pieces such as Lied des Verfolgten im Turm and Tost im Ungluck. Their military appeal, with plenty of side drum and trumpet, was in marked contrast to Gatti's Fourth Symphony, pastoral and impassioned by turns, and showing a fine ear. This was a journey, flowing freely through the twists of the first movement, full of detours in the scherzo, and pausing for the celebration of Mahlerian rapture that is the third. In a broader perspective, all this was preparation for Ziesak's role in the finale.

Here, she sang tenderly of the joys of heaven until, with her beautifully rendered phrase, "No music is anywhere on earth that can be compared with ours," the piece reached its destination, and was lulled to sleep by a gently pulsing harp-beat.