Three days ago, Daniele Gatti led the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in an unforgettable performance of the Ninth. For the Usher Hall audience, the 2013 International Festival was framed by powerhouse Mahler.
The epic span of the composer's last full symphony encompasses life and death itself; many see it as the ultimate farewell of a man who had lost his young daughter and been diagnosed with terminal heart disease. And while plenty of interpreters hone in on Mahler's use of irony to mask the pain, Gatti took a more earnest slant. The second movement's landlers and nostalgic waltzes sounded simple and sincere; the Rondo-Burleske was no garish romp, but a plain-speaking portrait of incongruence and displacement. Its rollercoaster non-sequiturs were less gripping than they often are, but the underlying message it gave - a resigned acceptance of imperfection and disjunction - felt deeply human.
Gatti opened the first movement with quiet nobility, treating its central dotted rhythm like a steady life-line whose resilience carried into the closing Adagio. The sound of this Dutch orchestra is unquestionably one of the finest in the world: the overwhelming lustre of the strings; the gloriously warm French horns; the impeccable ensemble work throughout. If I had any complaint it was that the orchestra is unable, or unwilling, to make an ugly sound, and there are moments in the gamut of Mahler's expression that need to embrace ugliness as well as beauty and might. But the quiet control of the fragile, fitful final minutes was captivating.