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REVIEW: OUO – Mahler’s 9th Symphony

Reuben Tendler reviews the Oxford University Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony, conducted by Natalia Luis-Bassa, which took place at the Sheldonian Theatre, 15/2/20.

It’s Saturday night, and the weather outside is miserable. The damp forces of transatlantic nature harbour the great, the good, and the cold into the Sheldonian Theatre. What better way to escape the harsh gales of Broad Street than to sit nearby on a rigid wooden step, listening to an hour and a half of music about premature death. Dennis brings the sturm; Mahler brings the drang.

As the pre-concert announcer reminds the patrons, the Sheldonian was not built to modern standards. It seems that its acoustic properties are not quite apt for the full thrust of symphonic massacre that the OUO present: the horns regularly sound forced and tardy in loud passages, and high string passages mostly disappear into thin air. But on other occasions, the resonance of the hall affords marvellous clarity. The bassoon and clarinet soli at the start of the 2nd movement, and the contrabassoon’s weavings at its close emit a marvellous warmth. And so too do the outbursts of trumpets in the 1st movement, releasing copious amounts of musical tension.

Conductor Natalia Luis-Bassa is strict with time, driving both the ländler of the 2nd movement and the burleske of the 3rd to points of structured frenzy. But this rigidity affects the music’s fluidity, and the players’ obvious need to follow their musical intuitions. Most notably on edge is the somewhat-stumbling flute and horn duet in the 1st movement, yet I must admit that this passage is rather odd in the first place.

After the silence that follows the last dying-away of quiet string melodies of infallible sensitivity, OUO’s brilliant musicians are aptly lauded with fervid applause, and the sound of the audience waking from various levels of music-induced dazes. As the listeners depart, the rumble of the storm seeps through the windows, but the music lingers in the head a little while longer. 

Image credit: Portrait of Gustav Mahler taken in America in 1909. BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

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