Proms 2014 - Prom 24: Mahler 9 Runnicles
Donald Runnicles second Proms concert was one of those programmes that aficionados love, and the Albert Hall was packed for just two works: Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and, without an interval, Mahler Symphony No 9. Upstairs in the gallery one lady thought it right to bring three children (the eldest being 13 or so) to a concert that they were disinterested in from the first note: so bless them they stage-whispered, rustled around in their bags, wandered round noisily.
The first work by Ralph Vaughan Williams is essentially for two uneven string orchestras with the leaders on the larger orchestra also form a string quartet at times in the piece. The spatial layout is crucial and Runnicles made good use of the Albert Hall platform - with the smaller orchestra higher, but further back on the raked staging. The sections of the main orchestra were not spread laterally to fill the stage but in narrow groups going away from the orchestra. This separation worked well even for me high in the Gallery. The playing was of the very highest quality and the interpretation didn't linger too much. A very fine performance - received with appropriate silence and the long resonance of the vast RAH space.
Mahler 9 requires something of a commitment of both players and audience. It is not a work I would say I enjoy. It is a traumatic experience mostly but a cathartic one. And in the sense, to paraphrase Goethe, by experiencing all you know yourself, your limits and reactions, it is instructive. It remains a reminder of how things can be good after grief for me so it has been a very personal piece for me over the years.
Technically it was well played - the orchestra have done it several times this year. The soloists were stretched at times but it's an exacting piece. The audience (at least the adults in the audience) behaved well. And there was a long silence at the end. But the final coda went on far too long for me. And this brings me to Runnicles interpretation: too often he adds a bit, a pause slightly too long, a note sustained slightly longer than it's siblings. After a while I found I was waiting for this. He's not alone and some very distinguished Mahler conductors have done it. But those I prefer in this work are less inclined to this sort of indulgence which Mahler works in all over the place. Others I'm sure will have found it moving: I think I found it a bit too nostalgic. Mahler knew this was a farewell of sorts, but it is forward looking in many ways and so the longeurs of his early symphonies feel out of place to me. Most of the time I liked a great deal in Runnicles reading - but I parted company with his dance-like approach to the Scherzo, this third movement was for a long time, the most terrified fit of anguish I knew(more recently joined with most of Strauss' Elektra). There was insufficient bite for me, it lacked punch and it wanted for spite and venom.
Having said all of that - to deliver what he and his orchestra delivered in the works final pages to a massive audience, hushed and stilled by the sheer weight of this weightless music, was a triumph. They should be proud of much of their Proms - the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra still punch above their weight and their conductor does wonderful things (goodness knows how they follow him - but they do). And we should be grateful to have them.