The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s promotional description of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony as a signature piece for the orchestra isn’t an unreasonable claim. Simon Rattle recorded it to great acclaim, and both Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons gave memorable performances. Tonight, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla brought her own unique style to the symphony in a performance which highlighted its every dramatic episode in bold colour.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla © Frans Jansen
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
© Frans Jansen

Gražinytė-Tyla’s approach became clear very early in the first movement, where there was an uncommon flexibility of tempo, pulling on the brakes for the warmly murmured hints of the rising Resurrection theme and ploughing into brassy tutti passages with hair-raising vigour. With contrast settings turned up to eleven, there was huge excitement to be enjoyed throughout the symphony, though the frequent brisk tempo changes inevitably made it feel episodic, flicking between spectacular individual scenes without much sense of the music unfolding organically. The positive side to this was that the symphony’s many highlights were as dramatic and wild as could ever be wished for. The first movement featured many such moments, though its highlight was the furious clattering of col legno strings and ensuring Mars-like G flat chords at its climax, spat out with more venom than I have ever heard.

There was only a brief minute’s pause before the second movement, where a similar flexibility of tempo continued to provide a sense of immediacy. Here, in the gentle lilt of the dance, the strings found a luminously warm glow. Though some of the more abrupt tempo changes took a moment to settle, ensemble was mostly very crisp even at the faintest dynamics demanded by the score.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the high drama of the majority of the symphony, the third movement was relatively measured in outlook, with more sense of a ghoulish Minuet than a Scherzo. The steady tempo shone a bright light on every detail of the music, though, with much to admire in the richly characterised woodwind writing, most of all from the memorably haunting E flat clarinet. The movement’s brassy outbursts were similarly measured. With the third movement kept to relatively modest dramatic proportions, the stage was set for the highlight of the evening, Karen Cargill’s extraordinarily moving Urlicht. Sung from behind the second violins with utmost control and beauty of tone, she beckoned the audience into her tale of the angel on the path with compelling drama. Aided by an attractively played oboe solo, she held the hall in rapt, magical silence.

The high-contrast, episodic approach was best suited to the finale, which lurches between paragraphs of unique musical outlook. Here, each heaven-splitting, raging outburst was ever more violent, with timpani and brass blazing. The early soft brass chorale was attractively coloured, though Mirga’s acceleration in its last lines would not suit all tastes. The march of the dead came with an entertaining sense of excitable ruggedness rather than overly military precision, and the subsequent offstage effects were carried off exceptionally well, with astute use of the Symphony Hall space. The Last Trump, with trumpets and horns ringing out bilaterally in surround sound from high in the auditorium, was magical.

Mahler 2 must be mother’s milk for the CBSO Chorus, though they sang with affecting passion from their soft, seated entry to towering last peroration of the Resurrection hymn. It was a pity that something in the stalls upset the Symphony Hall management during the very softest moments of the chorus’ contribution, resulting in a series of loud door creaks and slams. Happily the final minutes of the symphony accelerated into the kind of floor-shaking finale that could probably have drowned out a passing military band. From Lucy Crowe’s elegant and remarkably boldly projected soprano lines to the entry of the organ, the tempo pushed ever onwards, with offstage brass joining in for the final pages from high in the organ gallery. It was a thrilling finish to a performance of dramatic contrasts.