Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra leader Amyn Merchant
Ion Marin: Conductor
MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 in A minor
THE Romanian conductor Ion Marin was a very late stand-in for an indisposed conductor in BSO performances of Mahler’s 9th symphony in March last year. Reviews of the concerts, including my own, were universally enthusiastic, so it was no surprise to see that Marin had been invited back to the Lighthouse, this time with a little more preparation time at his disposal.
Mahler’s 6th symphony was composed in 1903-4. This was a happy time in the composer’s life, as he was newly married and with a young family. Nevertheless, the symphony is a work of overwhelming tragic intensity.
It is Mahler’s most conventional symphony in form, following the four-movement pattern established in the eighteenth century. The first movement uses conventional sonata form, with the exposition repeated. But the scale of the symphony is vast, both in length (about 80 minutes) and orchestral resources (about 110 players). In the tragic last movement, the struggle with fate which in Beethoven’s 5th symphony led to a triumphant major-key climax, here ends in defeat, despair and desolation.
Marin’s approach to the first movement was steady and relatively straightforward, with a sense of holding back from extremes of emotion. The string tone was sumptuous from the start, remarkably so given that about half the players were hired for this concert rather than being on the permanent staff.
The conductor decided to play the andante movement second and the scherzo third; Mahler was indecisive about the order, but this felt absolutely right. The emotional temperature rose, and Marin became more flexible in tempi, highlighting some wonderful chamber-music-like passages. The fantastical grotesqueries of the scherzo were given full and whole-hearted expression by the players, and Mahler’s inventive and original orchestration was brilliantly showcased.
So we arrived at the last movement, lasting over thirty minutes and almost a symphony in itself. Conflict between the forces of light and life in the major and darkness and death in the minor rages throughout, and at three points in the movement, the imagined ‘hero’ is dealt three ‘blows of fate’ from a hammer, ‘the last of which fells him as a tree is felled’. The hammer here was a large wooden mallet, which percussionist Matt King smashed onto a hollow wooden block, making the dull but resounding thud which Mahler demands. Except that on the third blow, the mallet was raised dramatically above King’s head, only to be gently lowered. This corresponded with Mahler’s wishes: he superstitiously removed the last hammer blow as he felt it was tempting fate too much. There is not often as much sheer theatre to enjoy in a musical performance. The sight of a sound not being made was intriguing in the extreme, almost distractingly so.
The quality of the sound was well up to the standard that we are getting used to from this wonderful orchestra. Let us hope for more Mahler from Marin: the players’ applause for the conductor and the conductor’s for the orchestra at the end seemed to signal a warm and potentially enduring relationship.