Mahler toyed with naming his sixth symphony ‘Tragic’, and his widow Alma claimed he regarded the final movement, with its three notorious hammer-blows, as depicting ‘the hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him like a tree’.
Mahlerites like to speculate that he was prophesying not only the personal woes about to befall him – the discovery of his heart condition, the death of his daughter, and Alma’s adultery – but also the Holocaust; his fascination with Nietzsche’s ideas is adduced as evidence that his ‘tragic’ was essentially philosophical.
No such extra-musical crutches were needed to appreciate the majesty of what Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra extracted from this labyrinthine score, whose instrumentation includes a giant mallet, whip, celesta, and cowbells. In the first few bars Bychkov nailed his colours to the mast: this would be a unified conception, driven by volcanic energy and a very physical approach to sound. Mahler’s grand tour of the emotions proceeds via textural contrasts and tissues of repeated motifs: Bychkov wove these seamlessly, using woodwind and brass to chill and thrill, and the strings to bring balm. There was an unusually long silence after the pulverising final chord.
The warm-up for this had been Strauss’s ‘Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra’, an early work heavily influenced by Chopin and Brahms but already impregnated with Strauss’s characteristic voice. Kirill Gerstein delivered the daunting piano part with silky grace.
The following night we got a very different kind of pianism, with the peerless Maria Joao Pires as soloist in Mozart’s ‘Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat major’. The Royal Albert Hall is the hardest place to in which to render the grave beauty of this late masterpiece, where even the liberation in the last movement must be measured and decorous. Pires’s every phrase had a truthful expressiveness, and David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich brought perfect balance to their side of the musical conversation: in the Larghetto, piano and orchestra together projected a wonderfully tender stillness.
They had preceded this work with the UK premiere of Anders Hillborg’s ‘Cold Heat’ – an exuberant but unmemorable tonal essay – but they rounded off the evening with a brilliant account of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony: this radiated white heat from start to finish.