MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K491
MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D major
ION Marin was a new name to me, but it is one that I will not forget. Stepping in at very short notice to replace the indisposed advertised conductor, Karl-Heinz Steffens, the 54-year-old Romanian led the BSO through a fiery, intense and utterly memorable performance of Mahler’s visionary and death-haunted 9th Symphony.
Marin left his homeland in 1986 and has since based his musical life on Vienna, learning from legendary conductors such as Abbado, Kleiber and von Karajan. He has conducted virtually all the greatest European orchestras. He proved to be an inspired choice as a stand-in, seemingly having the eighty-odd minutes of the Mahler utterly at his fingertips despite what must have been minimal preparation time.
Marin arranged the massed ranks of the 99-strong augmented BSO so that the basses were on the extreme left of the stage behind the first violins with the second violins on the right and the cellos and violas forming a central ‘engine room’. This meant that instruments with lower registers were spread right across the platform and the contrasting lines of first and second violins emerged with greater clarity – the second violins, after all, introduce important material in both the first two movements.
What extraordinary music this is. Written in 1910 after Mahler had been diagnosed with the heart condition that was to lead to his death next year, the music is death-haunted, combining challenging modernist dissonances with direct and visceral emotional communication. Mahler’s orchestration and the balancing of the huge forces is constantly fascinating, with delicate chamber-music passages contrasting dramatically with huge overwhelming climaxes. This is music which has to be experienced live.
Many members of the orchestra had vital solo contributions: impossible to name them all, but Jesper Svedberg’s cello, Anna Pyne’s flute, Nicolas Fleury’s horn and Chris Avison’s wonderfully controlled muted trumpet stand out in the memory. The orchestra followed Marin’s highly-flexible tempi and dynamics with unwavering concentration and even when things got a shade ragged at the end of the madly presstisimo third movement this was fully appropriate to the hysterical emotional climate of the music. The string playing in the closing pages, when the music gradually dies away to nothing, was simply breathtaking.
Before the interval some very generous programming had given us a performance of one of Mozart’s most ambitious and substantial piano concertos, No 24 in C minor. Often spoken of as a tragic work which prefigures Beethoven, the German pianist Gerhard Oppitz’s performance saw the work in its own terms, as a serious classical piece rather than a forerunner of romanticism. His playing was crisp, clear and bright, and his manner studious, concentrated and unshowy. Marin’s spacious tempi let the detail of the sumptuous woodwind lines emerge clearly and this was a satisfying prelude to the wonders to come in the second half.