The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s season brochure notes Mahler's Second Symphony to be something of a calling card, played at the opening of Symphony Hall, at Sir Simon Rattle’s departure and here billed as Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s final concert as musical director. Owing to the outgoing MD’s pregnancy, however, the baton was handed to Markus Stenz, who conducted a thrilling if occasionally uneven account.

Markus Stenz conducts the CBSO
© Andrew Fox

Stenz’s approach was built on a foundation of generally brisk tempos, though with a low threshold for stepping on the brakes to admire the scenery at the most dramatic moments. The opening movement panned out with inexorably rising tension, from the soft tread of the double basses’ march to some crashing climaxes. Details of phrasing and articulation were closely managed, memorably so in the brief glimpses of major-key resolution, though elsewhere this occasionally threatened to come at the expense of ensemble.

The second and third movements recapitulated the dead hero’s life in bold colours, the latter with a heady sense of urgency in its capricious changes of scene. The uncommonly brisk tempo wasn’t necessarily conducive to orchestral precision, though, and some scrappy corners will no doubt be ironed out for Saturday’s repeat performance. Occasional untidy pizzicato and entries aside, however, the overall drama made for edge-of-the-seat excitement. Individual lines were realised with rich character, memorably for E flat clarinet and lurching figures passed between first and second violins, and when allowed off the leash, the brass blazed without ever over-blowing, instead finding a golden glow in their contributions.

Markus Stenz, the CBSO and CBSO Chorus
© Andrew Fox

Karen Cargill’s Urlicht, delivered from between tuba and second timpanist at the back of stage, floated into the auditorium with utmost control and warmth. Her ample vibrato contrasted with moments of hushed stillness and purity of sound elsewhere. The CBSO responded in kind, most effectively in a hauntingly moving oboe solo.

The finale erupted with a terrifying shriek and continued in similarly dramatic vein. The brass chorale, led from the bottom by full-bodied tuba and contrabassoon, led to a spectacular break in the storm clouds, with double-stopped timpani adding significant punch The two ensuing crescendos for percussion section were substantially drawn out into monumental roars, before the dead marched past with dizzying fervour. The logistics of the offstage roles were neatly coordinated, horns and trumpets split on opposite sides of the auditorium. Balance between orchestra and soprano Janai Brugger was not as sympathetic as it might have been, and it would have been good to hear more of her attractively soft contributions. The CBSO Chorus is no doubt even more familiar with this work than the orchestra from various guest appearances nationally and internationally. They sang with immaculate purity of tone for their hushed first entry, before filling the hall with a wall of sound for the last chorus, chorus master Julian Wilkins joining in from the organ console. 

****1