The Mahler Experience, displayed in the foyer of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, is an oil on canvas by acclaimed Birmingham born artist Norman Perryman. It depicts a conductor in silhouette whose baton electrifies the hall in a whirling rush of spiritual enlightenment. It was the perfect artwork to excite anticipation in advance of the Czech Philharmonic’s performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony under maestro Jiří Bělohlávek.

Jiří Bělohlávek © Petra Hajská
Jiří Bělohlávek
© Petra Hajská

The 90-minute symphony is often performed as the only item on a programme. However, the Czechs elected to treat concertgoers to an additional work, Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor. This was an excellent programme choice, a highly popular work from a German contemporary of Mahler, but centred on the romantic tradition that contrasted perfectly with the symphony’s soul searching solemnity. The virtuosic challenges were met by the Czech Philharmonic’s young leader, Josef Špaček. From the outset the conductor and orchestra were on top form, gauging the tempo, balance and warmth of sound perfectly. Špaček did not so much play over the orchestra, but worked within it, delivering an astoundingly mature performance for one still under thirty. His tone is rich and full and he was able to meet the technical demands of the concerto without any unnecessary fuss.

Rather than egotistically showcasing his lightning dexterity, Špaček is an unassuming musician who explores the finer nuances of the music and causes the listener to concentrate more on his interpretation than his skill. This was particularly noticeable in the Adagio where his phrasing matched and complemented the collective with lyrical precision. Špaček ensured the audience got more than a programme-filler with this concerto, and their response to him signalled that he completely won them over.

After the interval a lone figure looked down at the stalls from the magnificent organ over the rows of the choir seats accommodating the CBSO Chorus. They, in turn, sat above all conceivable manner of timpani, percussion, gongs and harps overseeing the large stage crammed full to the brim with the sections of the orchestra. At the centre, Jiří Bělohlávek somehow had to control this colossal cast. Furthermore he had to do so before a concert hall that has seen other great conductors, such as Andris Nelsons, deliver this piece to great acclaim. Indeed, the symphony has a special significance to Birmingham Symphony Hall, being the first piece ever performed here at its inaugural concert by the CBSO under Sir Simon Rattle. Could the Czechs, promising so much before the interval, deliver on the expectations that they had aroused?

The opening chord from the violins immediately dispelled any doubt, creating a tension that Bělohlávek never let up for a moment. The basses were strident and bold in their entry and the long first movement was underway. The balance between sections was consistently good throughout, regardless of the dynamics which went from a barely audible pianissimo to thunderclap fortissimo at the flick of Bělohlávek’s fingers. Here was a man in total control of a unified world class orchestra. There are no weak areas in orchestras of this quality, however one could not help but be impressed with the French horns as they paired sympathetically with the other instruments, reflecting through tone and timbre the ever-changing moods and dramatic dynamics of the piece.   

Bělohlávek played the second movement Ländler with a distinctly relaxed Viennese feel, diminishing the thematic tension though it was never entirely absent. That sense of suppressed anguish re-surfaced again in the third movement, and the dirigent continued to produce multiple variations of sound and mood from all sections of the orchestra, again with the horns playing a prominent role.

Mezzo-soprano Jana Hrochová-Wallingerová’s performance of the haunting fourth movement was beautifully controlled and convincing as she delivered the reflective core of the symphony from the anonymous German folk-poems Des Knaben Wunderhorn: “I am from God and will return to God. The loving God will grant me light, the light that will lead me to an eternal life of bliss.” That journey, the final movement, began with a percussive blitz, but Bělohlávek did not allow the sound quality to be distorted by the frenetic volume. Soprano Sarah Fox joined Hrochová-Wallingerová and the CBSO Chorus, the singing beautifully measured between solo voices and choir throughout. A further delight was the off-stage brass, brilliantly arranged behind left and right stage doors. When the choir rose in unison, the organ struck up and the bells rang out for the symphony’s resolution, one could not help but feel the hairs rise on the back of the neck.  

As I left, I took another look at Perryman’s The Mahler Experience. Its colours were decidedly more varied and vibrant on the way out, and that silhouette now seemed somehow to resemble the physique of Jiří Bělohlávek. 

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