The idea of Mahler 2 in a venue of Cadogan Hall’s proportions is almost ridiculous: the stage is cramped even for an orchestra of non-Mahlerian scale, there’s no organ and no obvious place for the choir. Beyond that, even if the logistics were arranged, surely the piece’s shattering climaxes would be painfully excessive for the audience at such close range? Not a bit of it – with a clever seating plan and careful moderation of balance, the Bruckner Orchester Linz's performance combined both the epic and the intimate in a way one doesn’t often see.

Markus Poschner © Volker Weihbold
Markus Poschner
© Volker Weihbold

The immediacy of the sound was obvious from the first tremolo of the opening movement, flung out vigorously by Markus Poschner. In such proximity, accuracy is of paramount importance, but it was never lacking, even in the tricky pauses of the opening bass and cello lines. Crystalline textures highlighted every detail of accompanying lines, shining light on subtleties such as a beautifully played horn and clarinet duet in the first movement. There was no compromise in the intense despair which punctuates the movement; the percussion section thundered, led by two timpanists playing on the hand-tuned Viennese calf-hide drums, and the wild col legno passage later on was utterly compelling.

The second and third movements, in which episodes from the dead superman’s life are recounted, demonstrated all the chamber qualities of Mahler’s lesser-scored works. The lightness of touch in the strings allowed the music to flow effortlessly through the Ländler, which Poschner allowed to remain suitably bucolic, and never overly mannered. There were also some fabulous pianissimos, where even a whole section would make themselves scarcely audible. The entry of Theresa Kronthaler for Urlicht was one such moment, where her control and richness of sound produced a passage of paralysing stillness. Later, in the finale, soprano Briggite Geller sang with a beautiful softness and roundness of tone.

Theresa Kronthaler © Tom Wagner
Theresa Kronthaler
© Tom Wagner

The finale erupted with a shattering explosion, just about on the better side of bearable. The brass section, playing with a golden ensemble sound, gave their chorale with impeccable balance before the army of the dead romped past at a vigorous pace. The chorus leapt to their feet, and a faint draft from behind heralded the offstage horn calls of the Last Trump, delivered from the stairwell behind the stalls to create a marvellous resonance. The trumpets and offstage percussion, by contrast, were placed backstage, giving a thrilling sense of immersion.

The Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, providing the vocals for the southern legs of the orchestra’s tour, were split high above the stage in the gallery seats, with women and men facing each other directly. The murmured lines of the Resurrection hymn floated down magically, instantly bringing to mind what Mahler must have felt when he first heard Klopstock’s text floating down from the organ gallery at his friend Hans Richter’s memorial service. Their declaration “Was entstanden ist, das muß vergehen” was whispered with palpable excitement, and they sang their hearts out in the last, joyous chorus. Here the brass blazed, trombones proudly aloft, with offstage players brought on as reinforcement, while the bells tolled. From such close quarters, it was unforgettably stirring.

I was lucky enough to be at the Edinburgh leg of the orchestra’s tour last weekend, when the combined forces of the Sheffield and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus joined the orchestra in the Usher Hall. That occasion had the advantage of a better organ (the Cadogan Hall organ couldn’t really claim to have added much tonight) but tonight shone an intimate, often microscopic lamp on this giant of the repertoire. The rest of the tour is not to be missed.