The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and newly elected Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena began their season with a storming Mahler 2 which thoroughly deserved its lengthy standing ovation.

Juanjo Mena © Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena
© Sussie Ahlburg

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, ‘Resurrection’, is scored for typically gargantuan forces, with over 100 in the orchestra, the large London Symphony Chorus and Bridgewater Hall organ behind and further brass and percussion offstage. It follows the composer’s first symphony, in which references are made to the death of the wayfarer in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and takes a journey from a friend’s graveside to resurrection, via retrospective glances into the deceased’s life.

Mena was asked in the pre-concert talk how he thought Mahler should be interpreted. He smiled, shrugged and threw his hands in the air. It was clear from the outset, though, that he had a very clear vision for his performance. The intense drama of the symphony was demonstrated from the first bar, with violently forceful string playing, but also with total control, unity and precision. The first movement was relentlessly tempestuous, with marvellously powerful playing from the brass and percussion sections. There was not once an undercooked climax or shy entry; it was bold and thoroughly distraught at every opportunity. This was balanced, however, with some wonderfully tender woodwind and low string playing.

The second, third and fourth movements are strongly narrative ‘life in retrospect’ works. The idle tunefulness of the second movement is in antithesis to the first. Mena and the Orchestra demonstrated clear mutual understanding to keep the pizzicato passages very precise in such a large string section, and created an easy lyricism. The third movement scherzo opens with a dramatic timpani figure before further episodes from the life of the hero. Four timpanists in all are used in the symphony (though only two for most of it) and they played with great panache, clarity and power all evening, driving forward the immense forces with gusto. Mena kept in mind the detail of the music, with every nuance perfectly placed.

The fourth movement, Urlicht, is one of Maher’s Wunderhorn songs, and was sung by mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion, who is no stranger to Mahler symphonies. Her entrance was magical, and she sang with soft and pure tone, creating a full sense of the trusting faith required for the subsequent dramatic resurrection. The orchestra played with a delicate sensitivity that gave ample space for Vermillion to sing with exquisite tenderness. Both soloists were tucked between the violins and horns, but never seemed to struggle to project. Soprano Ailish Tynan was a late replacement for an unwell Susan Gritton. She sang with great charisma, but at times her tone was slightly sharp (in character, rather than pitch) after the subtlety of Vermillion.

The fifth movement is preceded by the ‘dreadful death cry’, as the composer put it, before ‘a huge tremor shakes the earth’. Various other directions seize the music, all the while Mena extracting every gram of emotion from the vast orchestra in several huge climaxes. The offstage brass and percussion were perfectly synchronised to the fine solo flute onstage, creating a very effective image. The almost imperceptible entry of the sitting chorus announces the second part of the movement, scarcely more than mouthing the hymn of the resurrection. If the mezzo-soprano entry was magical, that of the chorus was sublime. They sang with remarkable control, despite one or two slightly clumsy consonants. The final few minutes of the symphony were sensational: as orchestra, chorus and soloists were joined by the hall’s magnificent Marcussen organ, Mena pulled ever increasing passion from his forces. His choice of tempi and implementation of articulations were perfect. The chorus sang with enormous power, suggestive of numbers greater than those present, and the brass and percussion continued to blaze. The finale was simply transcendent, from the horns held aloft (they played magnificently all evening) to the triumphantly blazing closing E flat major chord. It left the audience trembling, hearts racing, and the huge ovation was surely a sign of great things to come from the Mena - BBC Philharmonic partnership.