Even within the context of Birmingham’s bonanza Mahler season, marking the anniversaries of both the composer’s birth and death, the last few days have brought us something extra special.
The Seventh Symphony from the LSO under Gergiev was wonderment enough, but Tuesday’s account of the Sixth, in my opinion the greatest symphony of the 20th century, was something else.
For more than 40 years the CBSO has had the work in its blood, nurtured by a variety of conductors. most notably Simon Rattle, who got the order of the middle movements wrong.
Thankfully Jac van Steen was guilty of no such crime on Tuesday, allowing the pounding venom of the scherzo to follow immediately upon the merciless tread of the first movement, and bringing us the eventual solace of the andante before the returning cruelty of the finale – and here he reinstated the third hammer-blow Mahler had superstitiously deleted, and it worked.
The orchestra played out of its socks for this conductor so attuned to the Mahlerian idiom, drawing crisp martial rhythms, full-throated lyricism (what a wonderful “Alma-theme” from the strings), defiant woodwind interjections, uneasy brass, now affirmative, now questing, and percussion-playing both colourfully evocative and menacingly implacable – fabulous timpani unisons from Peter Hill and Cliff Pick on the famous motto-rhythm which drives the hero into oblivion.
Rating * * * * *