Proms BERIO PREMIERE Royal Albert Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
So the shofar finally sounded for Gustav Mahler. And on the penultimate night of the Proms, the night for so long associated with Beethoven's enduring vision of universal brotherhood. Mahler would surely have appreciated the irony.

As a preface to his Second Symphony, "Resurrection", the symbolism of Luciano Berio's Shofar would not have been lost on him, either. Here, after all, was a Jew who did not heed its calling, who opted instead for Catholic guilt and glory, and even then found heaven only on earth. Berio's shofar is thrice blown in the words of Paul Celan and advanced on a moving current of orchestral texture within which are heard all manner of reiterative trumpettings. A quartet of saxophones, the pinched report of muted trumpets, the shiver of vibraphone - these are contemporary sound references - but the feeling is of old beliefs being carried forward to their time-honoured conclusion, though in a deeper sense remaining open-ended. When Berio adopted the third movement of Mahler's Second Symphony for the central panel of his Sinfonia, he sought to evoke - as Mahler himself had done - a never-ending stream of consciousness, the eternal treadmill of life "going on ... going on ..." Shofar finds a resolution of sorts, and stops. But only inasmuch as we can hear it. Because the shofar will sound.

As surely as did "the last trump" for this season's retrospective of the Mahler Symphonies. To end with the Second is effectively to end at the beginning: with all of the questions and none of the answers. But wasn't it ever thus with Mahler? There isn't a great deal that anyone can teach Sir Charles Mackerras about Mahlerian style and character. That much was clear from the very start of Friday's performance. In particular, that very specialised brand of tempo-rubato - the seasoned Mahlerian's stock-in-trade. Mackerras exhibited masterly control here over those portentous ritardandos and allargandos, not simply observing but feeling his way through them. With the re-emergence of the first movement's second subject - a dramatic modulation from C minor to remote E major - we understood why Mahler marked a series of tiny tenutos over the first phrase of the melody, each note to be held back in breathless anticipation of the next.

For a moment, this oasis of tranquillity is simply too good to be true, an auditory mirage. Could Mackerras have coaxed these bars still further into the realms of the other-worldly? Could he arguably have lived more dangerously, come on stronger, weighed in more heavily for the scarifying climax of the development (molto pesante) with its volley of vandalising dischords? Certainly he could. And with Mahler, that little extra distance can so easily be the difference between the first-rate and the momentous.

Even so, the sense of "occasion" was unmistakable, Mackerras's unflashy but highly personal touch somehow exemplified in the playing of the BBC Philharmonic strings and the warmth of their embrace as Mahler looks nostalgically back from the desolate coda of the first movement. Or the second movement Andante, so lightly inflected, so naturally turned, the pizzicato variant cheeky enough to be Mozart or Haydn.

As for that gigantic fresco of a finale, nerve will to some extent suffice. Mackerras did not lose his (the great percussion upheavals were proof conclusive of that), and neither did his intrepid brass. The Albert Hall opened to them, its galleries resounding to some uncommonly full-throated summons. In no other hall and no other music festival does the hushed entry of the chorus (the combined Brighton and Edinburgh Festival Choruses) have quite this effect. Yes, I should have liked it quieter still and yes, Mackerras could have marked the return of the Resurrection Ode, the opening of the gates of Paradise, with still greater breadth. But if Mahler did have a single moment of absolute certainty about his destiny - this was it. And that certainly came across.