RSNO/Belohlavek <br></br> BBC SSO/Runnicles <br></br> Concerto Italiano/Alessandrini, Usher Hall ****/****/*****

Triumphs of modernity and improvisation
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The Independent Culture

The Ninth and Third Symphonies came out very differently in performance. Mahler's last complete work was directed by Jiri Belohlavek with a steady sobriety, a sense of space and time that turned it into a string of enthralling villages on a leisurely journey. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra had the scale and the luxurious sound for the vast finale, but the two central movements showed a reluctance to blossom that turned them into queer sketches.

Donald Runnicles had the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for the Third. This band has had a series of inspired chief conductors and has developed a pronounced character, but they do not have the string muscle for Mahler's big paragraphs. But there was plenty of drama, and the mezzo Birgitta Svenden was warm and persuasive in the Nietzsche movement. It was typical of Runnicles to start the next movement without a break with the RSNO Junior Chorus still seated, stressing the Joycean shock of this joke.

You can do Monteverdi's Vespers with a big string ensemble, trumpets, drums, the whole works. Composers in those days did not make the actual musical forces clear. The minimum is two choirs of four singers each, two violins and two continuo groups: 16 musicians. This was the chosen solution for Rinaldo Alessandrini and the Concerto Italiano.

Another thing: nobody in those days played exactly the notes written. They made up embellishments and fioriture, different every time. Incredibly, Alessandrini's people did the same. It was risky, dangerous, fresh, and absolutely mesmerising.

But if it works, don't knock it, and this worked magisterially. Most remarkable of all was the sense of rhythm. Passages of sonorous, lyric euphony leapt suddenly into life, the dancers of Venice pointing their toes and swinging their heavy brocade skirts, the impeccable Latin rattling forth in a florid patter. The slightest suggestion of exuberance - the word 'laudatio', perhaps - produced a joyous cry of praise. Meanwhile the two violinists concertised freely, fluttering off into inspired absurdity.

Maybe spontaneity is the ultimate musical achievement. This was the highest music-making, refined, unbuttoned, beyond words.

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