I don’t suppose it’s possible to give a perfect performance of a Mahler symphony. There are too many themes, too many interlocking parts – put simply, too many notes for every one to be perfect. What is possible, though, is to give a performance which grabs the listener from the first bars and carries them through 90 minutes of music without letting go, surprising and enthralling at every moment. I know this because at the Royal Festival Hall last night, that’s exactly what Jakub Hrůša and the Philharmonia accomplished with the Resurrection Symphony.

© Alison Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
© Alison Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

The intent was signalled in the very first bars. Backed by violin and viola tremolos, the cellos and double basses play a short passage leading to a powerful motif of three descending notes, the first of many short motifs that Mahler will repeat again and again in different guises through the length of the work. The tremolo was vivid; the accenting from cellos and basses was of extraordinary intensity. We knew we were in for something special.

If Hrůša’s mastery of phrasing and the Philharmonia’s willingness to go for broke were evident from those first bars, another sign of quality followed soon after. In many places through this work, Mahler mixes the dynamics between instrumental groups: while the strings, say, are playing loud, woodwind or brass instruments might be asked to play at pianissimo – not to be heard individually but to add timbral colour. With a score of this complexity, it takes immense preparation and skill to place each instrument’s dynamics in exactly the right spot between being lost altogether and stealing the spotlight by being too loud: Hrůša was in command of every dynamic detail. The composer’s name (minus an h) is the German word for “painter”; here, it was Hrůša applying fine brushstrokes to a musical canvas, each delivered with loving care – a nod to the horns or the cellos, or a finger jabbed towards the second violins followed by a beaming smile after some passage that had obviously been the focus of rehearsal.

There were many highlights worthy of mention: amongst them, pairs of descending notes from oboe, the clatter of col legno cellos and basses mirrored by the percussionist on the opposite side of the stage, haunting faraway trumpet solos. But the key point is that in the half an hour of this first movement, the excitement and the forward drive never faltered.

Some of Mahler’s trademarks were delivered with aplomb: the second movement Ländler rendered with minuet-like gentility before the more pressured Trio section, brass chorales, glockenspiel used to give zest at the start of a phrase, off-stage distant brass (which worked particularly well in the Royal Festival Hall, played from the lobbies to each side), the clarinet-laden klezmer-like feel of the third movement. As ever, Mahler’s town band put in its appearance: you can take the composer out of the Bohemian village, but you can’t take the village out of the composer. Mezzo Jennifer Johnston delivered a stunning rendition of her solo fourth movement Urlicht, with a Lieder singer’s fervent commitment to the text.

Like Beethoven’s Ninth, the Resurrection is a five movement symphony with a choral last movement. But the use of the chorus could not be more different: where Beethoven gives us a strophic ode, the Mahlerian chorus starts unaccompanied, in an almost imperceptible pianissimo which builds slowly to the massive organ-laden climax. Hrůša and the rapt orchestral players carried us with them with impeccable dynamic control. This symphony may be a work about death, but it is music of the most enormous optimism and we were borne aloft on a wave of ecstasy.


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