Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is not a work for chamber orchestra. St Peter’s College Chamber Orchestra’s programme clearly wanted us to overlook this fact—that this was a performance of an arrangement of the work was mentioned only once, with an allusion to the arrangers tucked away from the eyes of audience members at the bottom of the acknowledgements. I wish that I could describe this performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 arranged for chamber orchestra (to call it what it was) as a revelation, provoking the music to reveal a new guise, intensified by the intimacy offered by chamber forces. This was at least my approximation of the intentions of a performance such as this, particularly as the programme confidently declared that ‘the music of Gustav Mahler is one of SPCO’s specialisms’. Instead, SPCO attempted to recreate the sound of a 100-piece orchestra with only 25 musicians, which must have been as tiresome for the players as it was for the audience.
For the most part the arrangement was compelling, with the potential to offer listeners a recasting of the work. It did, however, pose some issues of orchestration. The use of piano instead of harp in particular rendered much of the transcendental music less effective, as the timbre of orchestral piano struggled to find a place in the music of Mahler in the way that it does in Shostakovich, for example. But many of the issues with this performance did not stem from the arrangement, but rather from SPCO’s performance of it.
Even with each individual string player straining in the hope of creating a collective sound to match that of a section four times in size, they were still entirely masked in the climaxes of the first movement, as the brass section seemed to forget they were sitting in a chamber orchestra. A constant desire to maintain a full sound in the more reflective sections of the first movement meant that the stark contrasts which are the essence of the music were largely lost. When it came to the fourth movement, the by then exhausted string section rarely found the rich sonority for which the music yearns, hampered by balance problems as the middle of the texture was overpowered by overzealous playing in the outer parts. The close of the symphony suffered the most from such issues of contrast, and was ultimately rendered weakly as the orchestra struggled to create a quiet dynamic that worked for strings and woodwind alike.
What was clear throughout was that this orchestra was formed of exceptional musicians, with some remarkable playing from all sections of the orchestra. Such instances of beauty were, however, isolated, and great players alone are not enough to produce a credible performance. Warner’s tempi were often uncompromising, driving a seemingly reluctant orchestra forward through moments of potential expressivity. His interpretation rendered too much of the music stylistically overwrought, with the work suffering from a lack of direction. A tendency to intensely focus on particular sections of the orchestra unfortunately had a negative impact on the overall ensemble. The result was one that lost sight of the big picture. As SPCO now embark on their Alpine Tour, taking this symphony to the huts where Mahler composed, it seems to me that their confused identity has only led to equally confused music making.