Mahler 9 / Bernard Haitink / London Symphony Orchestra / Barbican

Time your departure from the concert hall right and you’ll experience the real magic of a live classical music concert.

Minutes after a platform crammed-full of musicians have transported you somewhere you never imagined you needed to go, you’ll see those same individuals make their journey home in the same way you do.

Magic followed by the banality of everyday life. That’s the miracle of music-making in London.

­Expansive as it is, Mahler’s 9th symphony is remarkably efficient. That’s another miracle worth noting: the composer’s deft hand on the manuscript.

Time passes quickly. There are no flabby bits. When you’re not marvelling at the beauty of the sound and the place you find yourself in, you’re gawping in disbelief at the majesty of the composer’s achievement.

Mahler’s mastery puts his listener at the centre of the drama. That’s surprising to me. I’d always approached Mahler’s music with the assumption that it was primarily intended as an autobiographical in intent. I’d been intimidated as a result.

A schoolboy error. Romanticism 101.  What Mahler triumphs in doing is cocooning the listener in the composer’s sound world. We’re not observing his drama, we’re living our own. We learn about ourselves.

Any decent performance of his music follows that lead. If the performance is good you won’t be thinking about the band. Their efforts will be secondary, even though without them the music is nothing.

We don’t seek perfection. We don’t seek a faultless performance. Instead we seek jeopardy, vulnerability,  and humanity.

If you still insist on perfection, then the final section of the first movement and principal flute Gavin Davies’ heart-stopping solo would be the place to look. If everything around you has fallen still, you know something special has occurred on stage.

There were a moments when the ensemble didn’t quite work. Actually, in truth, there was really only one – the approach to the climax in the final movement when the string ensemble wobbled just a little bit.

No matter. What we also demand is authenticity.

If there was a momentary lack of discipline, it was more than made up for the breathtaking dynamic contrasts as the final movement ebbed away. A moment we knew had to come to an end, but one we longer to continue for as long as was humanly possible.

When the players stood to take the applause, I counted three individuals on the front desk wiping a tear from their faces. That’s all the proof you need you’ve participated in something special.

Tonight’s performance of Mahler’s 9th symphony was dedicated to the victims and their families of last night’s terror attack in Manchester.


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