Mahler’s second symphony – The Resurrection – has long been a showpiece work; it is certainly a favourite at the Proms, and seems to be one of the milestones of symphonic conductors’ careers. The chance to hear an ‘authentic’ performance (‘as Mahler would have heard it’), then, presented a rare opportunity to hear a different take on the work.
An initial thought might be that ‘authentic’ for a symphony premiered in 1895 wouldn’t be very different to a modern performance: the orchestra and its instruments as heard today were pretty much in place under Mahler. But there are differences, and particularly in the wind sections – rawer-sounding clarinets, Viennese horns and oboes, for example – and The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Vladimir Jurowski brought all of these unusual textures to the audience’s attention in this performance. The horn calls in the last movement were warmer (albeit not as steady as on modern instruments), and the woodwind chorus throughout was slightly harsher than usual – a splendidly astringent silver-band sound that brought to the fore the uneasy emotions of the symphony. The timpani playing, also, seemed to involve more frequent use of hard sticks than usual, resulting in some magnificently incisive moments, such as the crisply dramatic opening to the third movement (followed by a jazz-cool, Weil-esque clarinet passage).
Beyond this, though, was Jurowski’s control of the piece. He allowed it plenty of space, giving full range to the many changing moods that sparkle on the slow-burn of the fuse to Mahler’s explosive finale. The long opening Totenfeier movement was full of contrasting orchestral colours, and Jurowski used the double basses (raised on a dais) to full effect – not only in the impactful opening bars, but also by highlighting their imitative and echo passages with the higher strings throughout the movement.
The Ländler-waltz sections in the second movement left the listener in no doubt as to Mahler’s origins – it was charmingly Straussian (Johann, rather than Richard), and as full of delayed downbeats and portamenti as a New-Year’s Day concert from the Vienna Musikverein – this elegance and mannered nature contrasting well with the occasional stormier undercurrents.
The two soloists make only small contributions, but the mezzo Sarah Connolly’s rendering of O Röschen rot was full of creamy depth, and the early darkness of the movement (much of which was accompanied by a separate wind-band on the side of the stage) gradually dawned, in a perfectly Mahlerian way, to a burst of springtime light on “… das ewig selig Leben”.
Jurowski’s creativeness was displayed in the last movement; more than any of the others, it was full of contrasts – the gradual build-ups that melt into querulous dissonance, and then re-bloom into glorious pastoral horn calls were handled with great subtlety, giving time for each emotion to register. He used the space creatively too – the off-stage fanfares came from many directions: at the back of the choir, outside the centre of the hall, and even a couple of trumpets in the Circle. A mention must be made, also, of the skilfully controlled quiet entry of the Philharmonia Chorus; very hushed singing by many voices, when it is done as well as this, always creates a special moment. The build-up to the apocalyptic finale – the duet between the mezzo and soprano (Adriana Kučerová) – demonstrated a perfect matching of voices, after which all of the musicians came together on stage for the last few bars, which released the tension created over the previous ninety minutes so thunderously that the entry of the newly restored Festival Hall organ could barely be heard.