The road leading to the fusillade of bright, brisk chords at the end of Mahler's Fifth Symphony – which concluded Seattle Symphony's current season – was unusually long and winding. And dark. In addition to navigating the lengthy Mahlerian shadows of the funeral march that launches Part I of the Fifth, Ludovic Morlot led the combined forces of the SSO, Seattle Symphony Chorale, and a pair of vocal soloists in the ensemble's first-ever performance of György Ligeti's 1965 Requiem by way of preamble.

Seattle Symphony and Seattle Symphony Chorale © Brandon Patoc
Seattle Symphony and Seattle Symphony Chorale
© Brandon Patoc

The juxtaposition was a bold and inspired one. Morlot underscored visions of disconnection and rupture shared by Ligeti and Mahler, although there is no exit in the former, no way out of the Requiem's nightmarish soundscape that would lead to an eventual consolation.

It was also a very ambitious undertaking, particularly for the Seattle Symphony Chorale. Ligeti's harmonic density and complexity, arrayed across the mass of voices, test the mettle of the most advanced choirs specialising in modern repertoire, as does the polyrhythmic intricacy of this music. The Chorale ventured far beyond its comfort zone with Ligeti's webs and clouds, its most successful moments coming in the swarming climaxes of the Kyrie, violent murmurations spreading across and blackening the sky.

If a palpable nervousness robbed the opening Introitus of some of its terrifying mystery, the singers gave a committed account and executed Ligeti's equally crucial dynamic extremes to impressive effect, with sustained notes so quiet they nearly froze into silence and shockingly forceful outbursts. Aside from some mid-voice weak links, the basses were sturdy as steel in Ligeti's sepulchral depths, the sopranos gleaming on high with otherworldly focus. 

Stepping forward for the Sequentia were soprano Audrey Luna and mezzo Allyson McHardy to heroically accomplish the vocal cliff-diving of Ligeti's absurdly spaced intervals. Luna's ozone-cool, dizzying high notes added a fascinating new colour to his canvas, while McHardy brought a fullness and warmth that hinted at a vanished world of comfort. Morlot emphasised the theatrical, moment-by-moment fractures, though the unresolved Lacrimosa lacked such careful definition.

"One dimension of my music," Ligeti famously said, "bears the imprint of a long time spent in the shadow of death". Meditations on death took on more familiar aspects of despair and defiance in the interconnected first two movements of Mahler's Fifth. Observing Morlot's evolving approach to this touchstone composer has been fascinating. Even when he strives to be as 'non-interventionist' as possible, a vehicle for the music itself, you sense a shunning of orthodox habits, an appreciation of textures as though they were the colours found in a score by Debussy.

Yet with the Fifth, Morlot seemed to stake out a more assertive claim of his own, stamping this exceedingly well-known music with his sensibility. His fastidious scrutiny of details prompted quite a few insights, especially as to the Fifth's convoluted architectonic design. The overall arch is easy enough to follow, as is the dark-to-light, Beethovenian paradigm. But as you zoom in from the bird's-eye level, Mahler can bewilder with his profusion of surface details and their interactions, like an overdetermined Google map. 

Morlot cast aside the 'neurotic' stereotype of Mahler as angst-driven and self-psychoanalyzing, giving the funeral march a straightforward, solid momentum, more robust passions to the flights of the sequel in Part 1. The strings brought bite to their attacks, with unison vehemence, while the Harmonieband scoring of the march had a rich, raw character. Principal cellist Efe Baltacıgil's led off with deeply expressive legato in the development section's lyrical oasis. Mahler's transitions by contrast were less persuasive in the conductor's reading, and the ensemble sounded strained at times, prone to imprecise attacks and muddled entrances. 

Morlot's approach worked best in the vast central Scherzo, which he pressured into the real turning-point of the Symphony by insisting on its almost baffling variety. If the Mahlerian symphony contains the world, this was a world within world. He elicited a subtle rubato in the pizzicato interlude, the waltz more than once bringing to mind the end-of-an-era tone of Ravel's La Valse. Principal horn Jeff Fair played with stunning presence and power, an oracular voice summoning the rest of the orchestra. 

Aside from some dragging in the funeral march, tempi overall were not unusual, yet this Fifth was notably on the long side. Morlot evoked the Adagietto's floating, time-defying character without undue exaggeration, though it lost some steam in the central section. Occasional slackness in the finale was also noticeable, and the lines of Mahler's polyphony didn't always emerge with Morlot's wonted clarity. Still, the musicians conveyed a veritably infectious enthusiasm. In the final gestures, Mahler ditches a full-scale peroration based on his brassy, joyous chorale in favour of a humorous detour and a speedy dash to the finishing line: a shortcut to brimming joy, which the SSO made intensely vivid.