An old Punch cartoon showed a suited gentleman before a stage curtain addressing a conference hall: “In a moment, the corporation’s Annual General Meeting. But first, Mahler Eight”. That puncturing of pretension by hyperbole stayed with me, but I never expected to encounter a similar proposal live. But here was Mahler’s mighty Symphony no. 7 “introducing” a 20-minute piece of a cappella singing. But the circumstances were unusual and partly political.

Sir Simon Rattle and the BBC Singers
© LSO | Mark Allan

The BBC Singers, a world-class professional chorus, had recently been threatened with extinction, then reprieved, one episode in the beleaguered British arts scene of recent times. To celebrate the choir and illustrate the calibre of work under threat, the London Symphony Orchestra added a second half to what was initially intended to be a concert devoted to one symphony. The chosen addition was created in wartime Paris, Poulenc’s Figure humaine, based on poems Paul Ėluard had written during his time in La Résistance.

The 1945 world premiere was given in London, in English – and by the BBC Singers. The work’s reputation stands high, for both quality and difficulty – written for double chorus involving 12 or more parts at times. It can rarely have been sung as accurately, and as expressively, as it was here. The final cry of “Liberté ”, capped with a startling high E, a scream for freedom, provoked a rapturous reception owing something to solidarity as well as to musical appreciation. Sir Simon Rattle, who directed the chorus, made a speech to open this second part, lamenting the threat faced by British musical culture. Alongside familiar points he acknowledged the cost challenges, adding “we could help, if we were ever asked or consulted”.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO
© LSO | Mark Allan

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony survived well its earlier reduction to curtain-raiser. Rattle pointed out (in his first, pre-concert, speech) that when Mahler conducted the Seventh he would put it in the first half. Rattle’s command of this score is complete, and his interpretation is solidly centred on tempi which give the performers space to play while maintaining a sense of momentum both within and across movements. If Bernard Haitink’s dictum that "no matter how loud Mahler gets we must always hear the strings" was not ideally observed throughout, that can vary depending on where in Barbican Hall you are sitting.

Certainly the strings, upper and lower, were virtuosic and eloquent when they needed to respond to the conductor’s frequent entreaties. For once Mahler’s irony – the default position of most performances – seemed supplanted by his sincerity. The more Mahler evoked Austrian dance, the more affectionate and rooted in fin-de-siècle Vienna this work of 1904-05 seemed. The Nachtmusik of movements two and four was enchanted, by horn and woodwind calls in the first and by the plucking of harp, guitar and mandolin in the second. In the shadowy central Scherzo that enchantment took on a more eerie edge, never overplayed. The finale, so often labelled problematic, was a riot of colour and invention from its timpani-led opening to its coda, Rattle superbly controlling his rhetorical ritardando just before the close.