Despite the cost and complexity of performing Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, this was no less than the work’s fourth appearance in London in the last eight months.Although 2010 is the composer’s 150th anniversary, the justification for this performance was Southbank Centre’s “The Bernstein Project”, the connection being Leonard Bernstein’s oft stated affinity with Mahler’s music.
The combined forces of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the Southbank Sinfonia were led by Marin Alsop, who studied with Bernstein at Tanglewood. And there was a good deal of Bernstein’s later approach to Mahler to found in Alsop’s somewhat ceremonial presentation of the score, in particular a running time lasting some 95 minutes. This was exemplified in the measured tread of the first movement, a mournful, tragic interpretation which rose to a climax so thunderous that it resulted, rather bizarrely, in some members of the audience bursting into applause. However, there was a general lack of impetus to balance the slow pace, and tension sagged in the later stages of the movement.
Alsop’s slow tempos continued through the symphony’s central movements, the Andante squarely delivered and uninvolving, the Scherzo refined but overly cautious. Mahler’s striking use of rute and E flat clarinet in the movement were understated, with the result that the music sometimes sounded more Mendelssohnian than Mahlerian.
The mezzo-soprano in the fourth movement was Karen Cargill. I found her prominent vibrato a distraction from the visionary depth of the music, and some of the brass playing could have been more sensitive. However, some measure of compensation was provided by the eloquent playing of both first oboe and first violin.
The offstage brass were well handled at the opening of the huge finale, although the development of the movement could have had more tension, and the subsequent march was energetic rather than genuinely thrilling. The final section of the movement featured the contributions of multiple choirs: the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, the Amici Chamber Choir, the Fleet Singers, the London Forest Choir, the Valentine Singers, Voicelab and Writtle Singers. Soprano Katherine Broderick contributed a radiant performance, and Karen Cargill seemed more at home here than earlier. With 300 or more singers placed behind the orchestra, at the side of the hall and in the front of the stalls, the performance reached a monumental and thrilling conclusion. This was an interpretation that aimed high and did, finally, deliver the goods, even if a bit more immediacy might have helped along the way.