There are a handful of symphonies that might attract the appellation, The Great C Minor - from Beethoven’s Fifth in 1808, through Brahms’ First, Bruckner’s Eighth, Mahler’s Second - all of which chart a path from darkness to blazing light, until Shostakovich in 1943 called a halt to the whole programme with the exhausted desolation that closes his Eighth. Mahler embarked on his vast work just as Bruckner finished the first version of his – and there are some parallels in the concerns of both symphonies, both with a trenchant first movement concerning itself with the confrontation of mortality, both with a heaven-storming finale, and both tackling the demands record-breaking symphonic length.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada © Martin Sigmund
Andrés Orozco-Estrada
© Martin Sigmund

Since May 1962 there have been 62 performances of Mahler’s Second Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall, as I was told after the concert by retired RFH employee, Kenelm Robert MBE.  This performance was one of the best he’d ever heard: that’s quite an accolade, and many in the audience felt similarly, rising to their feet to applaud.

The scheduled conductor, Jaap van Zweden, had to pull out due to shoulder injury, and his place was taken at short notice by Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Even so, together with the LPO orchestra and chorus, he certainly got a lot of things right. The theatre of it all needs to be well managed, and on this occasion the off-stage horn, trumpets and brass band were judged to perfection, achieving the unlikely effect, in the Royal Festival Hall, of infinite misty distance on the wasted planet as the material world dissolves and we all head off towards Judgement Day. The entry of the choir with its whispered promise of resurrection was just as quiet as it ought to be – audible, but heart-stoppingly quiet. They remained seated so as not to break the magic by shuffling to their feet after the twittering of the last lone bird, piccolo and flute, fades away, and they only stood up after commanding us imperiously to cease our trembling and to prepare to live! Being seated seemed to impair neither their dynamic range nor their attack: they were superb – and they had their music off by heart! – no vocal scores held up in front, direct communication was unimpeded. 

Mahler calls for a meditative pause of ‘at least five minutes’ after the first movement;  Maestro Orozco-Estrada gave us a couple of minutes, filled by tuning and chatter – but it was enough to emphasise the break in the narrative that the composer wanted. The only distracting moment that perhaps could have been managed better was the entry of the two soloists after the second movement. It would be nice if their presence could arise, physically as on occasion it does sonically, imperceptibly from amongst the choir.

I had some minor reservations about the interpretation. Neither of the two shorter movements that begin the second half was entirely successful. Both were a little fast, the former a little lacking in lilt and tenderness, the cellos big counter melody very solidly played, though the pizzicato section was quite magical; and the third movement might have benefited from greater rhythmic accentuation. Orozco-Estrada tended to favour the rhapsodic, sometimes to the detriment of the grounded earthy rhythms that dominate much of the symphony and contribute to its irresistible forward momentum. He was also perhaps a bit too reluctant to indulge in anything sentimental, whereas more room for increased lyricism in some of the instrumental solos, a little more pathos and slightly longer pauses after cataclysmic climaxes would have increased the emotional range. But these were small quibbles: the overall effect was very powerful.

The contrasts in tempi in the first movement were quite extreme, but all of them marked in the score, and the movement gained cogency as it progressed. The purely instrumental part of the symphony dies away with a quiet stroke on the tam-tam, whereupon Alice Coote stood and sang three words, “O Röschen rot” (O little red rose). Even if that were all that had happened this evening it would have been worth running the gauntlet of Underground hell and the nightmarish post-Halloween hordes to hear. She is able to be not merely the most beautiful of Mahler singers, but one of the most intelligently dramatic, and her little poem, “Urlicht” (Primeval Light) took on the stature of the emotional heart of this massive work. Together with Elizabeth Watts they were as good a pair of soloists as you could wish for, singing with beautiful control and sounding as though they felt and believed every word.

And that’s the nub. This symphony can be treated merely as noisy entertainment, as a huge tone poem illustrating some make-believe story about Resurrection, but the measure of the truly great performance is its seriousness, that it takes the listener from passionate concern with the Dostoievskian ‘accursed questions’, through to the ecstatic affirmation of belief that we live and die with a purpose, and shall soar to heaven to meet our God. The test is whether, even if just for a few concert hall minutes, the hearts of the faithless and disillusioned do indeed believe. For this listener, although this was a very fine performance, brimming with passion and energy, beauty and elation, it did not quite rise high enough to float over that hurdle. Maybe it’s become an impossible dream.