First Night:Blumine, marvellous Mahler

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Royal Albert Hall London

RAIN POUNDED the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday evening while the Estonian conductor Neeme Jarvi cued the Royal Philharmonic for one of Gustav Mahler's warmest miniatures, the spring-like "Blumine", a tender trumpet tune that circulated the dome like a melancholy reveille from the distant past.

"Blumine" was originally intended as part of Mahler's First symphony but never made it to the final edition, whereas the next work on Jarvi's programme - the breast-beating "Funeral Feast" - was later transformed into the first movement of Mahler's epic Resurrection symphony. Saturday's performance which was included as part of the RPO's ongoing "Mahler Spectacle" - had all the ingredients of a horror-film soundtrack. First there was a dramatic jab from the violins, then some angry gesturing among the lower strings and an unexpected show of musical sunlight.

Anyone unfamiliar with this gnarled monster will have thrilled to its Gothic grandeur, its occasional serenity and sudden climactic eruptions. Jarvi's speeds were controversially slow - so much so that when the tumbledown final climax broke loose near the end of the movement, there was premature applause before the proper ending (on quietly plucked strings) had a chance to sound. But then interpretative risk-taking has always been a characteristic of the man who, not so long ago, was voted one of the century's 25 top Estonians.

The concert's second half was given over to Mahler's madcap Seventh, though this time Jarvi changed his tack completely and charged through the music - or most of it - in top gear. The first movement either bullies in march-time or basks in its own gorgeous harmonies; the second is a sort of off-beat tango; the third a slithery scherzo visited by eerie things that go bump in the night; the fourth a tea-room intermezzo, and the finale a bric-a-brac tour de force full of brass, bells, bits of Lehar and Schumann, and goodness knows what else.

There are in-jokes galore and the guy sitting in front of me laughed at them all, though by the end of it the RPO was beginning to sound a little tired. And no wonder, given the extraordinary length of the programme. Next up in the Festival is the massive Eighth, or Symphony of a Thousand, scheduled for 6 May, under Giuseppe Sinopoli. That too should be well worth seeing.

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