A dream team of orchestra, soloists and choruses, a sold-out Royal Albert Hall, and Sir Simon Rattle at the helm for Mahler’s monumental Resurrection Symphony – this was always going to be special, and it certainly did not disappoint in any way.

Mahler's Resurrection Symphony in the Royal Albert Hall
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

But first, Rattle began by speaking briefly and fondly about Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who died earlier this year. Birtwistle composed Donum Simoni MMXVIII, a ‘gift’ for Rattle, for his first full season with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2018. In just three or four minutes, Birtwistle packs in some trademark features, with hefty rasps from trombones and shrill calls from the woodwind, as well as strident percussion effects. The percussion comes in threes – three harsh woodblocks fire out over the woodwinds, and towards the end three tubular bells ring out. But it is unusually the tuba that takes the starring role, opening and closing proceedings and providing the fixed point throughout with its dark, lumbering presence. 

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the London Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Conducting from memory, Rattle immediately gave every sense of confidence and total command. Every detail was there, but nothing felt overly deliberate, making Mahler’s frequent lurches towards potential chaos feel totally natural. In the first movement, a controlled rapid accelerando was effortlessly instinctive, and the portamento from the violins, as well as the slow crescendo soon after, achieved through swelling on the longer woodwind notes, were perfectly placed, but without any sense of ‘hey, look at this!’. Even a brief sit down for Rattle and a retune before the second movement actually made sense of the shift into the more soft-toned territory of Ländler, and again, the light lifts and filigree violins were unfussy and gracious throughout. The mood shifted into the third movement, with seasick swells in the strings and cheeky trumpets disturbing the watery pastoral mood, and Mahler’s sudden ‘cry of disgust’ carried all the shock it required. Then Urlicht – and Dame Sarah Connolly’s opening line could not have been more captivating, full of pain and longing, and the rising phrases on “Himmel” and “leuchten” had a beautiful pleading intensity, all the more powerful for the understated control on show. And so to the finale – a crash, then offstage horns set heads turning to locate the sound. As the offstage bands shifted throughout the movement, their timing was always impeccable, no mean feat in the RAH’s cavernous acoustic, and the massive drum roll at the heart of the movement grew to an astonishingly scary volume. 

Louise Alder and Dame Sarah Connolly
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Then finally, Friedrich Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode arrived out of silence, following the offstage fanfares and strange woodwind 'bird of death'. Simon Halsey deserves credit for the fine preparation of both the London Symphony and CBSO Choruses here. From their first seated arrival with “Aufersteh’n”, fiendishly difficult to sing so quietly after sitting for over an hour, to their full-force explosion of sound in the closing sections, they demonstrated exemplary diction, control and tuning (only one slightly stray S on “Was” can be excused in the adrenaline rush of surely some of the most exalting choral moments in the repertoire). Soprano Louise Alder, at this point positioned side-stage up by the chorus upper voices, rose beautifully above them, and then joined Connolly on stage for their heartfelt banishments of pain and death. 

The choruses, in full unison power for “Sterben”, followed by the explosive high chord on “leben” – “I shall die, in order to live!” – heralded in the pure ecstasy of the final verse, with bells, organ and Mahler’s full kitchen sink thrown at it. This ending never ceases to impress, but tonight’s tear-inducing, glorious statement of the power of life over death will be remembered for a long time to come.