To celebrate its 30th birthday, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is thinking big. It has always been one of the more adventurous of period instrument orchestras, seeing the 19th century as much its territory as the 17th and 18th, and for this anniversary season it is staging its most daring concerts yet, no more so than in choosing to tackle one of the giants of the repertoire, Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.

Vladimir Jurowski © Matthias Creutziger
Vladimir Jurowski
© Matthias Creutziger

In one sense, with Mahler there isn’t the issue of a ‘sullied’ performance tradition needing freeing from the encrustations of generations of inauthentic practices. His music didn’t truly enter the general repertoire until the postwar years and, in any case, his scores are so full of detailed performance indications that scope for distortion – at least from those conductors who are attentive to such things – is diminished. Yet there’s certainly value in having the occasional chance to hear how his music might have sounded in his own day, deploying instruments and performing practices of the late 19th century.

The most striking thing in instrumental terms about this performance conducted by experienced Mahlerian Vladimir Jurowski was that the brass was less powerful and penetrating than we are used to hearing in modern orchestras, suggesting that Mahler needed six horns and as many trumpets to make their sound tell rather than as an act of aggrandisement. The reedier sound produced by gut strings and the more sinewy woodwind of the era simply offer more character to be assailed. That said, there was no lack of impact overall, and one sensed the effect the music must have had on its early audiences, and why it was the most performed of Mahler’s symphonies in his lifetime.

Other nods towards authenticity were the careful placing of all the various offstage ensembles – the distant horn, the evocation of the raucous town band, the antiphonal trumpets calling from the balcony, even the wind ensemble accompanying “Urlicht”, positioned as directed away from the main body of the orchestra – and, following the composer’s known practice, having the chorus seated for its opening, quieter contributions to the finale. Yet there were drawbacks. Quite a number of fluffs from both woodwind and brass suggest that instruments have been improved over the intervening century for a reason – to make them more reliable to play. Despite that, such things were easily overlooked in the context of a virtuoso accomplishment from the orchestra as a whole.

The 1890s were not, or at least not yet, the period when everything was played with soupy portamentos from the strings – otherwise Mahler wouldn’t have indicated those places in the score where he did want them. And Jurowski was meticulous in his adherence to the composer’s wishes. The counterpoint of the first movement was clearly delineated, with string articulation, in particular, cleanly tackled – the creeping back of the dotted march rhythm in the cellos and basses was revelatory in its sound quality. And the string theme that opens the second movement was similarly shaped with a sense of its overall line. Jurowski took the third-movement scherzo at a careful rather than rushed pace – differentiating between the three-in-a-bar main sections and those where the music moves forward in one beat to a bar. There was also a controversial if rather striking ‘klezmerisation’ of the solo clarinet’s humorous interventions from Katherine Spencer that threw new light on the movement’s broad musical allusions. But in terms of authenticity, is it possible to listen to this part of the symphony with ‘innocent’, 19th-century ears ever since Berio composed his palimpsest on it in his Sinfonia of the 1960s?

Sarah Connolly’s first entry in “Urlicht”, the fourth movement that emerges out of the debris of the scherzo, was awe-inspiring in its tonal depth and clarity. Unfortunately, her solo colleague in the finale, soprano Adriana Kučerová, didn’t project her words with the same acuity and as a result her contribution was more anonymous. The Philharmonia Chorus sang with power and passion and the closing section of the movement, with the addition of the offstage brass coming on to the platform and taking the foreground, was as profound as in any performance I have heard.

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