Worcester Cathedral welcomed Juraj Valčuha and the Philharmonia back for the latest concert of the Three Choirs Festival. Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 in C minor is a work shrouded in gloomy mystery as the audience travels from a bleak graveside to being lifted by angels in a glorious resurrection.

Mahler's symphony promises its audience a journey, and the subito piano and dynamic range of the opening captured both the imagination and the attention of the audience. The drama was intensified by the articulated rhythm in the lower strings rumbling below the tiniest hint of violins. Rhythms were well executed by all parts of the orchestra, denoting the funeral march of the first movement. The strings' beautiful lyricism added a touch of melancholy to the clean-cut rhythmic backdrop, allowing a sense of grief and loss into the story.

The Philharmonia demonstrated a remarkable ability to play so quietly and delicately you scarcely dared to breathe. As notes drifted their way down the nave, the audience’s attention turned to the cor anglais that gave a graceful and delicate performance before the melody was transferred to the clarinet. It was soon the turn of the flute to take it on with a sweet, pure tone before a nod to the strings and a violin solo.

A lighter style governed the second movement, Andante moderato, that enabled the orchestra to showcase its ability to play more lyrical and expressive music. Strings delicately buzzed through their spiccato notes leaving long, languishing phrases for the woodwinds. Once again, the lower strings really excelled as the cello section delivered their melody with an exquisite, rich tone that created a real sense of warmth, before the pizzicato section that was both magical and engaging, and as delicate as a music box. The third movement begins with a crack from the timpani leading into what sounded like a pastoral dance. The orchestra demonstrated a tight communication between different sections as antiphonal passages were seamless and effective. Fragments of brass fanfare added a sense of grandeur and richness to the movement, adding a touch a sparkle to the somewhat lilting passages.

Signalling a change of mood, the fourth movement – “Urlicht” (Primeval Light) welcomed mezzo-soprano soloist, Jennifer Johnston, who instantly transformed the intense drama to a subdued melancholy with the most hauntingly beautiful voice. Johnston’s performance was refined and graceful, employing a controlled use of vibrato that wasn’t at all overpowering. Her beautiful tone was equally matched by the oboe that echoed her controlled expression. Woodwinds chipped in with wonderful flurries and the leader of the orchestra played a wonderful solo with just a hint of Romany allure. The end of the movement was met with the most subtle crescendo in the vocal line, which was as gentle as the sun appearing from behind a cloud. Mahler’s use of text focuses on the poet’s fervent belief in his own resurrection and eternal life: “I am from God and would return to God! Dear God will give me a little light that will lead me to eternal blessed life”. The calm and unconditional faith in the resurrection of the dead was reflected by the calm, peaceful performance of the movement: there is no fear in death, only the undeniable knowledge that they will rise again.


As we thundered in to the fifth and final movement with a crash and a scream from the piccolo, “Rise again, yes you will rise again!” was the text that governed this most dramatic symphonic movement. The string theme from earlier in the symphony is greeted by distant horn calls turning into a bold, brassy fanfare as if they were summoning the sleeping King John, whose tomb lay in the choir stalls of the Cathedral. The Festival Chorus made their entry in sombre whispers – an army of the dead - against a backdrop of silence. The pure melody and effortless piano gave the most natural depiction of the greatest mystery of humanity: the simple hope that life goes on. Soprano soloist Katherine Boderick demonstrated a wonderful control over her voice as the line suspended over the chorus before the orchestra floods into a sense of hope and peace, then erupts into a spine tingling promise of eternal life. As chord after chord marched its way to the most triumphant conclusion of any symphony, nothing but exultant sounds of victory resonated through the Cathedral as if the dead and buried had shaken off their marble coffins to rise with the music.