Vassily Sinaisky returned to the BBC Philharmonic to conclude their 2016-17 season with a floor-shaking performance of Mahler’s monumental second symphony, with all the might of the CBSO Chorus thrown in for the final movement. The work’s last outing in Manchester was in 2011, when the newly-appointed Juanjo Mena conducted the symphony with the same forces. Sinaisky’s reading tonight was a touch less sentimental in the final chorus and a little quicker in overall pacing, putting more emphasis on the shattering cries of the dead in the fifth movement and the stormy first, but lost none of the power of Mena’s account.

Vassily Sinaisky © Ulla Alderin
Vassily Sinaisky
© Ulla Alderin
There was none of the customary long, meditative pause at the outset of a Mahler symphony, which gave the wild opening growls in the lower strings a breathless sense of immediacy. The funeral march unfolded with an inevitable grimness, interposed with momentary glimpses of the redemptive, rising five-note theme which became subtly brighter as the symphony progressed. The climactic moment, with strings hammering out their triplets Mit dem Bogen geschlagen, as instructed by the composer (to strike the strings with the bow), was stunning.

The second and third movements both carried a lovely sense of grace and lightness of touch in the string playing, perhaps aided in some part by guest leaders of the first violins (Charlotte Scott) and cellos (Joely Koos), both from strong chamber music backgrounds. There was steely resolve too, in the defiant rising horn figures of the Andante, and an indulgently grotesque retelling of the composer’s earlier Wunderhorn song, St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes.

The first strains of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston’s Urlicht appeared from nowhere with a warmly glowing tone and utmost care for the text. Soprano Olena Tokar was similarly excellent in the final movement. Both she and Johnston sang with remarkable control and beautifully rounded sound in all their offerings.

Sinaisky oversaw the drama of the final movement with great authority and considerable ingenuity in the staging. After the wild outburst which launched the movement, the distant horn calls and soft tread of the brass’ march, led by solo trumpet, sent a shiver up the spine. The subsequent parting of the clouds saw the lights come up on the choir in a blaze of sound and colour, before a vigorous and brightly optimistic procession of the dead. Victoria Daniel’s despairing flute solo was accompanied – brilliantly – by the four offstage trumpets standing in the choir seats in a 180-degree arc above the orchestra. The onstage brass played with admirably focussed power and considerable stamina, while the percussion section, led by the two timpanists, produced some monumental fortissimos to drive the orchestra forwards.

The chorus’ first entry, as is customary, came from a seated position, barely more than a murmur but with rich colour extending deep into the bass section. Like the two soloists, the excellent CBSO Chorus gave close attention to the detail and character of their text, which created some wonderful theatre in the hushed, crisply separated Was entstanden ist, das muss vergehen!” and the later cry of Bereite dich!”. After springing to their feet for the final chorus, they threw everything into a towering climax to the symphony, Sinaisky steering clear of any excessive pull-back of tempo but drawing the season to a close with organ and bells in a blaze of glory.

*****