Isn’t it rather astonishing that in our secular age people still continue to flock to performances of Mahler 2, whereas they would think twice about going to hear the great religious oratorios that once held the Victorian age in thrall? Could it perhaps be that this great C minor symphony has actually very little to do with religion?

The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski © Ben Ealovega
The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski
© Ben Ealovega

In fact, up to the point in the penultimate movement, the Urlicht, when the mezzo sings of Heaven, a little angel and God himself, there is no indication of any religious inspiration. This performance, given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under their Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski, was twice blessed in having Dame Sarah Connolly as the mezzo and Sofia Fomina in the smaller role as soprano soloist in the finale. Both were positioned in the choir stalls, immediately in front of the organ. From this vantage point Connolly projected her warm, burgundy-rich voice, aided by superb articulation and understanding of her words, into the auditorium, with Fomina’s silvery sounds soaring aloft, and both providing the consolation implicit in the score. The way Connolly’s voice opened out gloriously at “das ewig selige Leben” said it all.

It is rare for the finale, the fifth of the movements and by far the longest, not to succeed in its impact, for in its “procession of rich and poor… a march of the dead to the Day of Judgement” (Mahler’s own words) it offers opportunities for maximum theatricality. It did so here in large measure, with spacious orchestral effects including Jurowski’s judicious placing of surround-sound off-stage forces, both distant and nigh, together with prominent tubular bells at the close, jubilant like wedding bells. The London Philharmonic Choir and London Youth Choir, after a shaky start, recovered to deliver the barnstorming “Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben” with ringing fervour.

There was much to savour in Jurowski’s conducting, both in the way he achieved impressive degrees of transparency in the score and the precise articulation he secured from a supremely confident LPO, boosted by additional desks of strings grounded on ten double basses that were positioned centre-stage. The delicacy of the playing in the Andante moderato, especially fine in the pizzicatos set against flute and piccolo and then the two harps, created a remarkable sense of summer’s haze hanging over the proceedings.

And yet, I cannot help feeling that in Jurowski’s largely impressionistic treatment of the score an important element of emotional engagement was absent. There wasn’t a moment of hysteria or indeed anguish in the entire performance, the tread undeniably purposeful throughout, the compressed power in the climaxes released with a clear head. At most, the gargoyles had sardonic smiles rather than a terrifying mien. I could admire, but I wasn’t moved.

This Mahler 2 was prefaced by the final part, “Metamorphosis”, from Colin Matthews’ Renewal, the close of which with its repeated metallic chords led seamlessly into the main work. For its inspiration it draws on a text from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which there is a central message of renewal: “All things are changed, nothing dies”. In its orchestral tintinnabulation and softly mesmerising choral line, it reminded me very much of the work of Arvo Pärt. Atmospheric effects aplenty, with flecks of iridescent colour from percussion and woodwind, it was already an indication of how Jurowski would engage with the main work.

So back to the original conundrum. Why the fascination of audiences with the Resurrection Symphony? Ultimately, it’s all about our own mortality and the approach to our own dying as well as the fervent individual hope that a life lived has not been in vain.

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