I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to have been at the first performance of today’s well-known master works. Bach’s St John Passion, for example, or Beethoven’s Eroica and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – and Mahler’s second symphony, the Resurrection. After the first performance of Mahler’s first symphony in Budapest, a Hungarian journal published a cartoon of A Mahler Symphony, where a Moses-like figure beats a huge bass drum linked to a gramophone horn out of which are blasted a Noah’s Ark of animals while the audience cover their ears and cower beneath the stage. A young woman called Alma wrote in her diary that the music was “an ear-splitting, nerve-shattering din” – and she was married to Mahler within four months. Mahler wrote that a symphony should contain the whole world. If the first symphony manages that in its reflection of the struggle of the individual to overcome suffering, the second symphony moves beyond the world to explore death and the realm of life after death and resurrection. It is one of the most powerful musical works ever written.

The first movement started life as a symphonic poem called Todtenfeier (Funeral rites), but it took Mahler about seven years to complete the full symphony. So powerful was the first movement that Mahler specified a five minute pause before the second movement so that the audience could recover although, on this occasion, a mere three minutes of tuning up and audience throat clearing sufficed. The work starts with massed cellos and double basses growling out their agitated subterranean flourishes while the brass blaze away in moments that can range from chorale-like spirituality to sheer terror. After the conductor Hans von Bülow heard this first movement, in its Todtenfeier incarnation, he said that it made Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (Bülow conducted the first performance of Tristan) sound like a Haydn symphony! Despite occasional moments of apparent repose, the mood of the opening movement is unremittingly bleak and sinister, particular under the commanding direction of Lorin Maazel. The downward slither and isolated pizzicatos at the end added to this air of desperation.

The following Andante moderato gave Maazel the chance to show a bit of humour – an opportunity which he declined, even in the passages with plucked strings that should show a moment of light relief as the protagonist of the work reflects on lighter moments in his past life. But in this performance, Maazel seemed to concentrate on the darker side of life, the Schubertian dances carrying a barely concealed sinister undercurrent. This movement also finishes with pizzicato plucks – in this case, in Maazel’s interpretation, the silences between them were filled with suspense. Maazel didn't do humour or irony. The Scherzo is based on the Wunderhorn song of St Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes who listened intently to his peroration, but then carry on as usual. The percussionists use of the rute (a type of switch, and the forerunner of the jazz drummers brush sticks) sounded more like a potential instrument of punishment than a dance band accompaniment. The Scherzo leads directly into the fourth movement, entitled ‘Urlicht’, with the mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung intoning the words “Mankind lies in greatest need! Mankind lies in greatest pain!” against a brass chorale. I am afraid that I had already been put off Miss DeYoung by her unprofessional habit of peering round the audience and grinning while awaiting her turn to sing, so I am less inclined to be forgiving about her massive Wagnerian-style vibrato and attempts to drag the pace.

The violent crash into the expansive final movement eventually leads to one of Mahler’s magical moments – an lengthy eerie involving off-stage horns and trumpets, the former not always entirely accurate and the whole rather spoilt by a noisy cough at a key moment of silence from a member of the audience who was clearly not caught up in the mood of it all. Although it might have been different from further back in the hall, from my privileged seat these off-stage forces could have sounded a great deal more distant and more spatially differentiated, in keeping with Mahler’s intention. The momentum builds, as Mahler depicts the earth quaking and the graves bursting open as the dead begin their endless procession to snatch of the opening of the Dies Irae. But then the music subsides with some forlorn sighing woodwind motifs, backed by distant fanfares, heralding a post-apocalyptic scene where the song of the nightingale competes with the distance horn and trumpet calls in a wonderful example of the definition of architecture as frozen music. Spellbinding as it was, Maazel could have made a great deal more of the mood, with a greater use of the acoustics of the hall and the spacing of the trumpets in particular. The eerie semi-silence is eventually joined by the chorus and solo soprano, with singing of the highest quality from the ever-professional soprano Sally Mathews, sensitively allowing her voice to blend and build from the orchestral and choral background, never seeking to outdoor the massed forces behind her, but always clear, focussed and thoroughly musical. As the choir and soprano quietly intoned the resurrection hymn, Michelle DeYoung facially emoted away to herself and anybody who cared to watch, before joining in rather too loudly for ‘O believe, my heart’. If anybody thought the Resurrection might be a calm and orderly affair, Mahler is quick to put them off that notion, as he uses the massed choir and the sound of the full organ (or as full as the Royal Festival Hall organ can get in its currently depleted form) to build to its enormous conclusion.

Mahler is known to have called for ever-louder playing from his brass section, and the Philharmonia brass responded superbly to Lorin Maazel’s similar entreaties, producing a glorious sound in what must be one of the hardest works for them to perform. Indeed, with the exception of one tiny indiscretion from the off-stage horns, the orchestra were on superb form, with flautist Emer McDonough being most notable amongst the many solo spots. Although Maazel could have gone further in some of his interpretational decisions, his focus on the sheer power of the work was well placed, with excellent control of the inexorable ebb and flow of tension and the transitions between often strongly contrasting sections.

The Philharmonia’s anniversary Mahler series of concerts with Lorin Maazel continues throughout the year at the Royal Festival Hall and at venues throughout the UK and Europe.