Pairing Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen with Mahler’s mighty Resurrection Symphony made for an emotionally exhausting season opener in Birmingham, taking a packed Symphony Hall from anguished lamentation to fist-clenched fury and, ultimately, shattering resolution.

The CBSO conducted by Andris Nelsons © Neil Pugh
The CBSO conducted by Andris Nelsons
© Neil Pugh

Strauss’ unique work for 23 solo strings is widely accepted as being a reflection on 1940s violence. Completed in early 1945, Strauss was horrified by the destruction around him, particularly the ruined opera houses of Germany’s major cities. The legacy of his sorrow, though, is a small series of works produced in what has been described as his Indian summer, in which he wrote his Oboe Concerto and Metamorphosen (1945) and Vier letzte Lieder (1948), all works of modest proportions and character a world away from the rambunctious tone poems of his youth.

Cellos aside, the small band of CBSO strings performed the work standing. Nelsons took a brisk, sunny opening which at first seemed at odds with the intensity of the playing, but, after further listening, suggested that the carefree lyricism was a thin veil for some painful underlying distress. The intensity seemed to grow with every phase early on, each one meticulously sculpted. The balance between entwining solo lines and ensemble playing was perfect, each player giving the impression of knowing the score closely enough to recognise where the next solo line would appear from and when to lock into tight togetherness. In particular, the snatches of part of the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony were gently leant into each time they appeared. Andris Nelsons’ command of the complex layers of texture was masterful, and with warm fluidity of gesture in his beat he executed a deeply moving performance to a crushingly tragic conclusion.

Such was the success of the Strauss that it took much of the interval for the pre-concert excitable buzz to return to the audience. Mahler’s Second Symphony, the Resurrection, is a colossal journey, vast and “like the world”, as the composer stressed the genre should be. Here it was given a devastatingly impassioned performance by the CBSO and CBSO Chorus. The lower strings opened ferociously with a breathtaking, biting attack. The symphony’s many full-blooded, raging outbursts were tackled with fearsome energy throughout, though always balanced and never overblown. The intensity was relentless at dynamics from brassy roar to murmuring tam-tam. By the end of the brutal assault that was the first movement a long, reflective pause was very welcome, Nelsons taking the chance to sit momentarily.

The waltzing second and third movements, by contrast, swept along far more easily. At least superficially, there was elegance and charm aplenty, but the hints of first-movement material were clearly acknowledged. The chamber-like aspects too were tightly managed, the flowing swells of the brass working well in opposition to string triplets in the Andante. The strings did a wonderful job of their hushed pizzicato waltz, taking the movement to a very still close. The third highlighted Mahler’s haunting, exotic writing with particularly lyrical clarinet playing before another screaming climax.

Nelsons eschewed pauses between movements in the second half of the symphony, which created a striking contrast into the fourth, “Urlicht”, a setting of one of Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn songs. Mezzo Mihoko Fujimura sang well, but might have made more of this shocking juxtaposition with a gentler performance rather than her relatively strident reading.

Another thunderous outburst announced the fifth movement, and the ensuing gentle introduction to the Resurrection Hymn’s perfect fifth motif and ascending five-note scale was treated with magical reverence. As in the opening movement, Nelsons’ fine command of architecture shaped a coherent path to the conclusion, past jubilant fanfare outbursts and earthquake rumbles from the percussion section. A particularly pleasing moment came when the offstage trumpets played from high up on both sides of the hall, giving a curious sense of cathedral-like space. The entry of the seated chorus was beautifully sung, and soprano Sarah Fox’s voice emerged gently from the choral sound with excellent control. Nelsons pushed onward to the final climactic proclamation of resurrection with much lunging and leaping. When it arrived, one could almost feel the wind from the vast forces, with chorus, organ and offstage brass at full pelt. It was a monumental, shattering conclusion to a magnificent performance, leaving grown men dabbing at their eyes amid the cheers.