Sir Simon Rattle has been an adventurous exponent of Mahler's symphonies, prospecting extraordinary gems in them for decades, so hopes were high for this performance of the Fifth with the London Symphony Orchestra. But first, Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem: a work of great condensation, lasting just over twenty minutes, but hardly lacking in concentrated force across its three movements. The opening Lacrymosa was warmed through with Brahmsian violas and cellos, spiked with keening saxophone solo. In the Dies irae second movement the LSO skirled violently, with bouncing strings evoking a sort of apocalyptic William Tell, and ferocious brass and woodwinds straight from Shostakovich. The finale (Requiem aeternam) provided the segue to the Mahler in the second half, a great unfolding chorale building to a ravishing climax. The piece is closed out by the enigmatic and reconciled sound-world of Mahler's late music, its forces at chamber-like proportions, and blending clarinets with low harp. It's hugely engaging music on its own terms, but a heavy amuse bouche before what was to follow, and too slight (by comparison) to be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Sir Simon Rattle © Oliver Helbig
Sir Simon Rattle
© Oliver Helbig

The first movement of Mahler's Fifth, with its opening trumpet alarm, was dignified despair, contained and forward-moving. Rattle seems particularly adept at shaping phrases and paragraphs towards their moments of emotional and musical pay-off, reaching deep into the strings to pull out their middle parts. This is not at the expense of Mahler's orchestral effects: the spectral interludes in the first and second movements beguiled, and the return of the opening theme in the winds and percussion evoked the terrifying military bands of Mahler's Der Tambourg'sell, and, presumably, nightmares. The second movement snapped and snarled, with murderous growling from the lower strings and pinprick articulation from brass and woodwinds, the latter particularly assertive in their brilliant upper registers.

The titanic Scherzo at the centre of the work – a craggy Ländler, a "foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound" according to Mahler – was delivered with granite heft and focus. Its rapid changes of mood and texture, the epitome of Mahler's mountainous mood music, can create the impression, in less accomplished performances, of something disjointed or nebulous, but Rattle's sense of the narrative movement of the work charts a clear path through its mists and folk dances. At the heart of the movement is the monumental solo horn part (earning principal Timothy Jones a huge ovation), complemented by Mahler's extraordinary ingenious ensemble writing for that instrument. It was simply some of the best horn playing I have ever heard live, recklessly melodic, endlessly colourful, sometimes pillow-soft.

This movement was undoubtedly the high point of the performance, full of spotlight moments: the tiny quartet of solo plucked strings, or the piquant, cackling woodwind entries. The waltz-like passages for strings were revelatory, played with only the tiniest, ornamental hints of vibrato. When such passages are given full wobble, Mahler can sound sarcastically saccharine or credulously naive, but here they ushered forth a nostalgia of rare rawness and vulnerability, memories of happier times now painful in recollection. Mahler feared it would be taken much too quickly, and it was, given in a brisk one-in-a-bar. But who cares when it channelled such drive? A graphic melding of elemental wildness with the sensibility of the tavern and Viennese mores, like squeezing Siegfried into a ball-gown.

The famous Adagietto, Mahler's love letter to Alma, is a moment of respite from the third movement's manic exuberance. Its gentleness is a luminous balm for a weary audience (and offers a merciful rest for beleaguered winds and brass). It can lapse into lethargy – Haitink's recording clocks in around nearly a quarter of an hour. Nothing wrong with the tempo here, with Rattle's forward-moving phrasing presaging the surging re-occurrence of this material in the last movement. But it did feel a bit stodgy and micromanaged, with an uncharacteristically disjointed sense of line. One yearned for the cleaner restraint of the last three movements, though Rattle and the LSO strings whispered in moments of intense quiet, floating Mahler's music into the stratosphere.

Mahler's contrapuntal Rondo finale was an explosion of unbridled joy and overwhelming triumph, transforming the wildness and despair of the symphony's first part into beaming transcendence. A few wobbles in the quality of the sound at the outset, to be sure, but swiftly swallowed up in a torrent of unabashedly bucolic playing, with glowing brass radiating Mahler's great chorale, soared over by strings of pure electricity.

Philosopher Theodor Adorno's great essay on Mahler quotes the poetry of Stefan Georg: “Das Lichter, die aus deinen Wunden Strahlen” (The lights which radiate from your wounds). I cannot think of a more apt distillation of the extraordinary journey of this symphony of transformation and redemption.

****1