It is on record that Mariss Jansons adores the Usher Hall in Edinburgh and wishes there was a concert hall with as good an acoustic in Munich. His quite astonishing performance of Mahler’s vast “Resurrection” Symphony, taking us as it does on a journey from darkness and despair to blazing light with orchestra and choir going flat out, demonstrated just what an exciting venue this is.

Barvarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mariss Jansons © Astrid Ackermann
Barvarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mariss Jansons
© Astrid Ackermann

The anticipation mounted in the packed hall as the smartly dressed Edinburgh Festival Chorus filed in, without scores and taking up every seat in the organ gallery, followed by the sizeable Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, to sustained applause. As the the orchestra tuned, it was impossible to ignore the three large proper bells in the percussion, so even before the conductor arrived, I was really looking forward to hear how they were going to sound in the final bars, an hour and a half away.

Jansons has been chief conductor of this orchestra for ten years – a highly successful partnership, judging by the players’ response to his call for different nuances at every turn of this symphony. Although he took a steady pace, the strings threw themselves into the first movement from the initial biting cellos and basses to electrifying unison passages, violins bouncing their bows on the strings, yet the tempo allowed the more lyrical passages to shine through connecting up the louder, turbulent, funereal music. The contrast of the final descending run taken at speed to the hushed two pizzicatos ending this long movement was astounding.

The conductor stood beside his podium for Mahler’s pause between the first two movements, before lightening the mood with the sunny Ländler, the strings reacting to every tiny change in tempo and emphasis from the baton, at one stage the upper strings plucking their instruments guitar-like in their laps. The level of rapport was superb and must have taken hours of careful rehearsal.

The slightly more tempestuous third movement followed with lots of detail brought out from woodwind in particular, and a wonderful string sound with use of bass drum and rute in the percussion. The movement ended in an ethereal low bass note, from which a magical mezzo-soprano voice suddenly emerged.

Indeed, it was in the “Urlicht” where an already memorable performance really took off, as Gerhild Romberger rose from her position next to the two harps and sang the simple words from Des Knaben Wunderhorn with a magnificent, rich tone in this lyrical prelude to the huge last movement. The ethereal offstage brass, somewhere high up at the back of the hall, was a breathtaking moment before the huge gong announced a cry of despair heralding the final movement. There was good co-ordination between the platform and the offstage trumpets floating down to us left and right, calling in antiphon and joined by other brass and percussion. On stage, the large brass section produced thrilling sounds, especially in the key central passage. The percussion was entertaining to watch, the music at one stage calling for the cymbal player to help one of the two timpani players out. And finally, the seated choir came in, softly whispering Klopstock’s lines “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n” – not easy to do over an hour after warming up. It was an electrifying moment. Later, soprano Genia Kühmeir sounded magnificent singing about the promise of life to come, soaring high over chorus and orchestra, and the work ended in a blaze of sound with the big and smaller gongs being hit alternately and the much-awaited distinctive clang of those bells in the final bars bringing this world-class performance to an end.

If there was a minor quibble, it was the use of an electronic organ in a hall which already has a very fine instrument. Orchestras are particular about tuning, so perhaps there was a mismatch, which was a pity: I missed the pipe organ rumble which should underpin the final section.

That said, this was probably one of the best concerts I have attended, and will surely be a benchmark event for the audience. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra produced a world-class sound and showed amazing rapport with their conductor. A wall of sustained applause brought Jansons, the soloists and chorusmaster Christopher Bell back to the stage many times before the players turned to their desk partners and shook their hands – a touching gesture in this memorable, humanitarian evening of music-making.

*****