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Prom 36 (Susan Elkin reviews)

It is Thomas Dausgaard’s extraordinary control over dynamics that I shall remember most about this concert. In the Schubert he had the upper strings whispering so softly that they were hardly there which made those punctuating sforzandos all the more dramatic. At the end of the Mahler the sound simply died away, while 5000 people waited, breath held, for the baton to drop (and it was a long time) despite the earlier inappropriate applause at the end of powerfully moving movements in both works.

It is an inspired programming idea to give us a pair of unfinished (arguably valedictory) symphonies composed 90 years apart. Here the Schubert stood gloriously self contained in its two movements – both in triple time with all that familiar B minor melancholy. Dausgaard has a knack of really making you listen (to the cello opening and the anguish in the second movement for example) with the results that this performance sounded delightfully fresh. Even the slight raggedness in the syncopated theme in the first movement was only a momentary distraction.

The Mahler, in contrast, was presented here as completed by Deryck Cooke and a team of three others as it almost always is. This version was first played at the Proms in 1964 and this was its seventh performance there. The opening adagio (pretty much pure Mahler) with its unusual gift to violas at the start gave Dausgaard plenty of scope to squeeze out every drop of dynamic contrast although sadly, when the music is as quiet as that one becomes more conscious of audience noise and fidgeting. Both scherzos and the playful but doom laden Purgatorio added to the sense of Mahler’s anguish – when this symphony was drafted he was both dying and dealing with his wife’s infidelity. This felt like an authentically autobiographical performance and a poignant one.

The high spot of Mahler 10 is, of course, the moment when the second scherzo, the fourth movement, gives way to the finale. Dausgaard, who described the music in this symphony as “transcendental” in conversation with Sean Raffery on Radio 3’s in Tune last week, really leaned on  those extraordinary resonant silences which lurk menacingly in the dialogue between bass drum and tuba. Yes, we were suddenly a very long way from the Schubert we’d heard an hour earlier.

Congratulations to the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra for all of this. The Mahler, in particular, is an exhausting work to play but there was never any sense of dipping energy levels. Rather the playing (Charlotte Ashton’s long flute solo in the Mahler, for instance) was always fine and often exciting. If this is the quality they can achieve with their new chief conductor then I look forward to more.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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