To the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday night and the last concert of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s 2017-18 season, which also happened to be the last concert in Scotland of the RSNO’s principal conductor, Peter Oundjian. The sole work on the programme was Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.
I’ve been listening to Mahler 9 for a long time. When I was a teenager I heard Otto Klemperer conduct it at the Edinburgh Festival. I used to listen endlessly to the Bruno Walter recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. I was particularly enamoured of the last movement, the Adagio, and its passionate writing for strings with these shifting Wagnerian cadences which, like Tristan, never seem to settle and resolve. Hearing it on Saturday reminded me of my last day at school. It was the day of my Grannie Campbell’s funeral in Skye, aged 93, but I couldn’t attend as I had to make a speech at prize-giving. The rest of the clan headed north out of Glasgow. I must have been a sober youth as it never crossed my mind to tell my friends I had an “empty”. In fact I went back to beautiful Caroline’s and we sat on the floor and played records. It felt poignant and sad. Still I was already a bit semidetached from the world of rock and pop because I eventually got back to my deserted home, and listened to the last movement of Mahler 9. Sad music is a bit of an indulgence to the young. It is only later that you sometimes feel it might better be avoided.
That Mahler 9 should be associated in my mind with a funeral seems apposite, in that the number nine, symphonically, seemed to be a figure many composers were unable to get past – Beethoven, Dvorak, Bruckner, Vaughan Williams, and of course Mahler. It is said – perhaps this is apocryphal – that Mahler cast his song cycle Das Lied von der Erde in symphonic form in order to elude the curse of number nine, but that it didn’t work; his tenth symphony had to be completed by somebody else. The Deryck Cooke performing version is an example. Das Lied was another obsession of mine as a youth. Again it was the last movement, and the Walter recording. The soloist was Kathleen Ferrier. Walter said – and this is not apocryphal – that the two greatest experiences of his life were knowing Kathleen Ferrier, and knowing Gustav Mahler, in that order. Listening to Ferrier sing the last movement of Das Lied, one can hear why. The intensity of the expression is beyond description. Ferrier was apologetic that she got a bit carried away, though Walter reassured her. But then, Walter was besotted. The thing about the voice of Ferrier is that this is the voice of a soul. She cannot open her mouth but that she establishes an instant connection with her audience, and she also seems to have some sort of profound connection with the inner core and meaning of the music. Menuhin had that same quality; he is another soul. People like that don’t come along very often. With Ferrier, the connection between late Mahler and death remains. She developed metastatic breast cancer that proved intractable to treatment. She actually broke a bone while on stage singing the role of Lucretia which Benjamin Britten created for her, and somehow managed to continue.
The RSNO’s performance of Mahler 9 on Saturday was magnificent. I think everybody in the hall knew they were present at something very special. I cannot remember a more attentive or a more appreciative audience. During the protracted pianissimo coda, to me always reminiscent of the close of Schubert 8 (if closing the Unfinished isn’t an oxymoron), the audience held its collective breath and you could have heard a pin drop. Maestro Oundjian acknowledged the contributions of all the principal players and all the orchestral sections in turn, and I wasn’t surprised that first horn Christopher Gough received a standing ovation.
Peter Oundjian’s association with the RSNO is not quite over. On September 6th they travel to London and the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. I might make the trip south. But tomorrow I head north. For me, the association of Mahler 9 with funerals continues. On Tuesday Clan Campbell will be on the Isle of Skye to attend the funeral of a dear cousin, famous for her generosity of heart. When I came back from New Zealand she lent me her croft in Camustianavaig, and I ensconced myself there and wrote a book, a precursor to that which won me the Impress Prize for new writers. So I head north to pay my profoundest respects and express my gratitude.
In memoriam, EM, d. 25/5/18.