Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall

Still only 51 when he died, Mahler had spent the last few years of his life exploring the idea of mortality and what lies beyond in a handful of huge, symphonically scaled compositions.

The Catholic redemptive affirmation of his so-called "Symphony of a Thousand" (no.8) gave way in his Ninth Symphony to a more oriental, Buddhist-like sense of disembodied infinity, and to express these ideas he had to adopt what seemed like a whole new musical language.

What was so remarkable about the performance of this deeply moving work from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim on Wednesday was the manner in which there was no hint of orchestral display for its own sake, apart from some characteristically aggressive brass playing early on which the conductor tamed.

Instead, all the superb technique of this giant among orchestras was streamlined into a dedicated unfolding of Mahler's painful vision of death and eternity, an objectivity which also allowed contemplation of the complexity of his new mode of expression.

The fragmented opening is surely a portent of Webern's rarefied style. The gruesome waltz of death of the second movement anticipates Ravel's La Valse, the manic Rondo-Burleske is basically a distorted polka and the visionary finale would not exist without Bruckner's great adagios. And throughout there appear hints of Mahler's great friend, colleague and rival, the worldly Richard Strauss (though he would contemplate mortality, too, at the end of a much longer life).

All this complexity was welded into a vast unity by Barenboim and his wonderful players, sensitively balanced and revealingly detailed. And the strings hymned gloriously at the end, as Mahler turned the emotional screw ever tighter as life's grip loosened.

Christopher Morley