Royal Scottish National Orchestra

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The Independent Culture

It seems that Mahler is now a front-rank popular composer, in spite of his complexity and many-levelled irony. Three of his symphonies were played in this year's Edinburgh Festival: the Fifth, by the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, the Second, by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the Sixth, by the Youth Orchestra of the European Union.

Of these, the last two could not have sounded more different. Garry Walker, the young associate conductor of the RSNO, chose to preface the Mahler with Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op 6, in their original version for large ensemble. These tiny cosmic visions had the effect of cleaning out our ears, banishing expectations of Romantic grandeur.

Walker then embarked on the "Resurrection" Symphony. It sounded extraordinary. Instead of drama and excitement there was agility; in place of lavish tunes there were moments of quiet simplicity or nervous constraint. The spasmodic nature of much of the music was stressed; the early, purely instrumental part of the finale was tentative and disconnected.

The mezzo soloist in the fourth movement, "Urlicht", was Jane Irwin. Somehow she was not at home, and she was occasionally a bit flat. In the choral conclusion, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus spoilt their hushed entry by trawling the first notes, an ugly effect. The soprano Soile Isokoski gleamed and glittered, but she had little to do.

In the end, it didn't add up. But you felt that this young musician had something to say. Perhaps he needed a different orchestra to say it to - one that was less sunk in deeply traditional programming.

The Sixth Symphony, on the other hand, was conducted by Bernard Haitink in a wholly traditional manner. It was totally convincing, though perhaps less ambitious than Walker's sidelong take on the other piece. But the able youngsters of the EUYO produced a massiveness of ensemble, a rhythmic splendour that realised, for a listener still committed to the sacrificial, redemptive Mahler, the power of this tragic conception, which seems a terrible parody of the military march, its scherzo a ferocious dance of death.

Where Walker had suppressed the lyric themes, Haitink delivered the famous "Alma" theme with a sweep of wild passion. Where Walker had broken the music into fragments, Haitink led it forward with enormous cumulative logic. Indeed, the Sixth left room for windows of optimism; the slow movement was still, confidential, instead of lachrymose, and you almost expected to meet Strauss's hero in the allegro energico of the finale. Perhaps we should try combining Walker and the EUYO.