When it has come to marking the key stages in his career, Riccardo Chailly has turned to Mahler. It was with the Eighth Symphony that he inaugurated his stint as music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, with the Second that he opened the Auditorium di Milano with La Verdi, and with the Concertgebouw Orchestra that he recorded a fine Mahler cycle. But while he has brought a wealth of repertoire to the table since taking over as La Scala's music director, Mahler has been off the menu. Here, then, was a chance to hear the conductor in repertoire with which he is arguably most closely associated.

Riccardo Chailly © Brescia/Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Riccardo Chailly
© Brescia/Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Chailly was able to provide an analytical grasp of the work's vast form, and an attention to detail that made Mahler's musical universe bristle with life. Clearly, he has both the experience and temperament to bridle this unwieldy beast. The Filarmonica did not play with the polished sheen for which it is often known, but let the raw power of the music speak on its own terms. The results were utterly captivating.

It helped that Chailly's players were willing to play their socks off for him. The opening horn melody rang out heroically, before the trumpets sneered, spluttered and seethed. Chailly drew a spasmodic heartbeat from the jolting bass drum to propel the opening section threateningly. Frequent split notes in the brass were of no consequence. An abiding image, which was representative of all-round committed playing, was of the double basses sawing at their instruments almost maniacally. Just as importantly, Chailly was able to cohere the unbridled life forces into a whole.

It was all invigoratingly primal, even explosive, but never out of control. And the conductor evidently knows just how to make the first movement's monumental structure sing. Chailly achieved unity and flow by highlighting the contrasts between the movement's various sections and managing the joins artfully. Pan awoke with energy that surged through the orchestra, before the initial march bounded, was pushed to its limit and overflowed. The moments of repose were equally engaging. The balmy atmosphere Mahler casts with mournful horn and tremulous strings was full of Mediterranean mystery. With Siberian gusts blowing outside, such thawing playing was welcome.

Riccardo Chailly conducts the Filarmonica della Scala © Brescia/Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Riccardo Chailly conducts the Filarmonica della Scala
© Brescia/Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Chailly took an especially long pause at the end of the movement. We needed it as much as he did, after being exposed to such high sonic G-forces. The luxurious Tempo di Menuetto that followed was a welcome salve. Its pirouetting A-section strings extended with shapely swagger – an alluring image of flowers rippling in a ripe summer breeze – and alternated with spinier pizzicato B-section interjections that were sharp and clear. Chailly's exuberant tempo changes felt considered but lent naturalness to the whole. The successive depiction of the nightingale jeering at the dead cuckoo in the Comodo (Scherzando) was invested with the vitality necessary to make this fecund world a wonder to behold. The way the violins wrapped their way around the elusive post-horn solo, floating in from somewhere in the outer corridors, was mesmerising.

In her "Midnight Song", mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger spoke deeply of the human intellect, in a reading that matched poise with rapture, pathos and wisdom. The bimms and bamms of the children's chorus stole glaringly like thunderbolts into this meditative soundscape, and the women's chorus sang richly. The soul-stirring climb to the spiritual summit that is the finale spoke eloquently and with profundity. A performance to remember.