Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

five stars

WHATEVER his superstition about the number, Mahler did not intend his Symphony No 9 to be a valedictory statement, but that has not stopped subsequent generations – who have had the advantage over the composer of listening to a performance – from hearing it as such. There is no such ambiguity about conductor Peter Oundjian’s choice of the work for his last concerts with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra as its music director (saving a BBC Prom concert of Britten’s War Requiem in September).

What a bold choice it was too, if partly for all the ambiguities the work embraces. Mahler 9 is a difficult work to unpack: the second movement may contain music that is as jolly as the composer ever gets, but it is immediately undercut in a way that pulls the rug from any notions of sincerity in that. But as well as wrestling with its complexity, the listener cannot help be beguiled by the work’s function as a showcase for the symphony orchestra, and one that, although large, is less garnished with sonic novelties than some other Mahler works.

It nonetheless delights in the broadest range of pitch with the basses, double bassoon, bass clarinet, and tuba as essential as the piccolo and E flat clarinet. The latter initiates a glorious first movement passage that moves on to flute and then leader, Maya Iwabuchi, that was surely breaking new ground over a century ago, just as a passage for muted trombones had a few minutes earlier.

Every detail of all this shone out in Oundjian’s reading, and in the superb playing for him of the musicians, but at the end it was the RSNO strings that really produced the goods, fittingly for a man whose career began as a violinist. Building around the solo figure for principal cello Aleksei Kiseliov, all four string sections combined in a world-class performance of the finale that became a most extraordinarily moving farewell.