Mahler’s second symphony always presents a programming challenge; it can’t be split, it makes for a lengthy half-concert, and its tour-de-force nature puts many other pieces into the shade. The LPO opted to test not only critical comparison but bladder control with an interval-less evening containing both the symphony and Colin Matthews’ 13 minute Metamorphosis.
Text-wise, Matthews’ piece, a setting of Ovid’s musings on change, complements Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode used in the final movement of the Mahler, but the musical material is different. Where Mahler played the long game of development of tension and part satisfaction until final release, Matthews opts for a formless shifting fog of note clusters from which fragments of rising melodic patterns boil up. It is a textural piece full of variform orchestral mutterings and percussion passages that scratch and twinkle; the text is divided into seemingly disjointed sections sung in overlapping lines from alternating high and low voices. Jurowski and the orchestra gave a good account of the work, showcasing its timbral variations with a well-judged control of dynamic and blend. The London Philharmonic Choir were equally impressive with dynamic (be it the pianissimo overlapping choral statements at the outset, or the grand ‘et nova’ passage), but were not always together on some of their endings. The final, almost Elgarian ‘cernis et emensas’ section allowed them a little more directional lyricism, which they tackled with admirable sureness.
It was perhaps the acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall, but throughout Mahler’s lengthy symphony, the orchestral sound was more granular than usual. Cohesion and blend were certainly evident, and sectionally (such as the lush string passages, or the warm brass chorus in the final movement) there was unity, but the sounds of individual instruments were noticeable. This was no bad thing, though, as much of the symphony depends on a constant feeling of fractured unease, which Mahler achieves – as well as through harmonic underlay that sours and crumbles – through sudden shifts of melodic material across the orchestra, and this latter effect was made sharper than usual.
Jurowski deployed his unique sensitivity to dynamic and speed to squeeze contrast after contrast from the orchestra: the massive, almost painful crashes in the opening movement were pulled away rapidly into formless, floating strings and harp passages or the determined agility of the cello and double bass theme. The opening of the second movement Ländler was a delightful exercise in pianissimo poise, Jurowski employing his whole body to gesture for the pull-ups in tempo. The abrupt timpani opening of the third movement was delivered with almost animal ferocity, and the skittish clarinet melody later in the same movement was given a nervously breathy treatment.
Jurowski also used the spatial possibilities of the symphony very well: the offstage ensemble was deployed in a number of positions in the Hall, from just to the side of the stage to outside the doors; the fifth movement horn-call from way up in the gallery was particularly special.
The singing in the final movements was perfection. Dame Sarah Connolly gave a matchless performance of ‘Uhrlicht’ whose final ’Leben’ was held in a vice of sweetness and power; the honeyed cogence of Sofia Fomina’s soprano emerged from the choral sound in ‘Auferstehen’ with a subtlety that transitioned rapidly to turbocharge. The choral sound throughout was magnificently handled, the LPC (joined by the London Youth Choir) making the most of every shade in the dynamic range. Their standing to sing the final ‘Aufersteh’n’ might be seen as an obvious piece of drama, but this was the finale of Mahler 2, in which drama is the name of the game.