Classical: Mahler's Sixth LPO / Haitinck Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
Some books give Mahler's Sixth Symphony a subtitle, "Tragic". Mahler himself doesn't seem to have had anything to do with it, and the label hasn't stuck; well, it is rather like calling King Lear "sad" or Pulp Fiction "violent". But there is another sense in which it doesn't do the Sixth justice. Mahler may have crammed the pages with grim musical imagery - funeral marches, skeletal laughter on xylophone, whips, apocalyptic hammer blows ("fate"), the brutal coup de grace at the end - but he does so with incredible relish and elan. That's the really astonishing thing about the Sixth Symphony - that it's so alive. There are almost too many good ideas, all dazzlingly realised in terms of a huge, colour-enhanced orchestra.

That impression was itself enhanced by the London Philharmonic Orchestra's performance under Bernard Haitink on Saturday. Where certain other conductors set out to wring every last drop of pathos from the music - the fading of the "Alma" vision in the first movement, the disintegration of the bleak A minor dirge at the end of the finale - Haitink maintained a razor's- edge balance between morbidity and overflowing vitality, darkness and brilliant light.

If there was one outstanding feature of the performance it was Haitink's grasp of the symphony as a whole. It is one hell of a whole to grasp. The arguments that continue about the order of the middle two movements (Mahler changed his mind at least twice) stem partly from a disbelief that Mahler could have meant the brutal, macabre Scherzo to follow on directly from the long, intense first movement -and both grow from the same pounding bass notes. But is it any more comfortable when the Scherzo precedes the volcanic, half-hour-plus Finale?

Haitink came down firmly in favour of the original scheme, with the Scherzo second, and argued for it with passion and powerful logic. The Scherzo was unmistakably the negation of the first movement, and especially its premature "triumph". The wrenching modulation back to the home key at the start of the Finale showed how, in the greatest Mahler, structural and emotional issues are inseparable - with the Scherzo placed just before it, this wouldn't have been nearly so effective. Astonishingly, Haitink managed to keep something back for the final stages (and not just the extra three pairs of cymbals!). The major-minor, light-dark, hope-tragedy opposition goes on throughout the symphony, but here the final climax was its apotheosis - few performances I've heard have matched that.

Let's not give Haitink all the credit though. The LPO played better than I've heard them play for a while: alert and accurate during this hour- and-a-half epic. It was a delight to see a London orchestra playing as though its fate depended on it. As pure theatre the performance was compelling enough - to the obvious delight of one little girl in the Festival Hall choir seats. A useful reminder: weary sophisticates may complain of the "over-exposure" of Mahler, Beethoven and Mozart, but there's usually someone for whom it's a revelation.

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