BBC SSO / Chauhan

City Halls, Glasgow

This hefty BBC SSO coupling of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler was not for the faint-hearted. Few will have left the City Halls on Thursday without feeling they’d been squeezed through the emotional wringer. On their own, Strauss’ Symphonic Fantasy based on his opera Die Frau one Schatten and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde are exhaustive enough as examples of post-Romantic, Austro-German intensity. Together, the danger was they might be one fix too many.

That wasn’t the case. Alpesh Chauhan – until recently the assistant conductor of the SSO – seemed ever-alert to the possibility, assured in his gestures and generously poetic in his phrase-shaping, but with a modicum of reserve and judicious application of self-indulgence. For us, that meant little discomfort and an ample double-helping of gratification.

There were some obvious issues – tenor Brenden Gunnell’s intrepid efforts to be heard over the orchestral clamour dominating the opening Mahler song (he was just short of screaming at one point, to little effect), and a general feeling that not everything had been done to fine-tune the expressive dove-tailing of the sinuous orchestral textures. But besides that, the delivery was impressive.

Strauss’ Symphonic Fantasy proved fascinating for the ground it occupies away from the opera that spawned it. Never conceived as a string of greatest hits – which don’t really exist in Strauss’ more organically creative mind – the impression is one of symphonic distillation. Recognisable themes provide the essential impetus for a powerful, self-contained, cathartic stream of consciousness. 

Foremost in this performance was its thrusting inevitability, wave upon wave of tidal surge punctuated by moments of idyllic calm (the early slow, smoking crescendo by the strings) or the thwack of menacing chords. Chauhan gauged the mood swings well, from Debussy-like mirages to irreverent playfulness. It was wild and heated, tempered by a cool head.

The Mahler, once its balance was better calibrated, was exquisite and every bit as compelling, Gunnell’s soaring tenor complemented by the golden-grained mezzo of Karen Cargill. There was pastoral frivolity from Gunnell in his songs, the scherzo-like “Youth” and a captivating laissez-faire in “The Drunkard in Spring”. Cargill revelled in her more reflective selection, the wistful ruminations of “The Lonely One In Autumn” and the shifting images of “Beauty” with its rapturous climactic interlude. 

But it was in the heart-stopping “Farewell”, meltingly sung by Cargill, that the full impact hit home.  Beyond the filigree instrumental delicacies of the earlier songs, and Mahler’s confection of impressions, from chattering chinoiserie and bird-like menageries to swarthy folk scenes, it was in this final timeless transcendence that magic happened. At its impassioned peak Cargill’s low register was a scorching presence. In the final fade out, pierced by a chiming celeste, we were left only with a chilling, seemingly eternal, silence. 

Ken Walton