There are two ways of understanding Mahler. The first is to see the music objectively as an outpouring of one hypersensitive man’s reactions to life and death – a form of late Romantic musical autobiography. The second is subjective – to share those reactions and see in them an expression of all mankind’s experiences and aspirations. It’s this second view that has underpinned Mahler’s growing popularity over the past 50 years.
What familiarity with the symphonies has given us, however, is an awareness of the dangers of hyper-subjectivity in the concert hall: it risks making the music vulgar and episodic. A strand of objectivity is necessary to draw some sort of coherence out of those unorthodox structures.
It is to Donald Runnicles’ credit that he recognises this. In his latest programme with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the Edinburgh-born conductor unfolded the Ninth Symphony with the kind of clairvoyance that sweeps you up in Mahler’s extraordinary cauldron of bipolar extremes, while simultaneously profiling the music’s interconnectedness with blistering clarity. The orchestra turned in a scorching, go-for-broke demonstration of corporate virtuosity, well above their game, as if to suggest that a special alchemy was at work. Runnicles, who returned to Scotland five years ago after an early career in Germany and the US, has done nothing better.
Above all, his performance revealed Mahler’s capacity to express contrary feelings simultaneously. Deft shaping of the first movement’s interlocking themes meant it was impossible to pinpoint where sweetly innocent horn obbligatos (the outstanding David Flack) gave way to sardonic trombone figures or emerged out of morbid harp motifs. Runnicles’ long Wagner experience paid dividends in his seamless negotiation of the Ländler’s awkward transitions, while the Rondo-Burleske’s shrieking climax was thrillingly calibrated. By the finale – intensely sustained, for all its serene resignation – we had long forgotten that the City Halls are a little small for the sound Mahler makes.
Between this dance of death and Arvo Pärt’s brief but equally elegiac Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, which came first, there was no break, even for applause. The Britten-Mahler connection was quietly underlined, and the symphony’s valedictory message concisely contextualised.