There are few greater disappointments than an event which fails to live up to high expectations: film adaptations of favourite books and the January sales seem like obvious examples of events which are often perfectly pleasing but drowned under hype. Thank goodness for the Proms, where natural cynicism is suspended and sold-out performances like the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra are celebrated both for the spin and the experience itself. Conductor Gustavo Dudamel chose to meet the hype head-on, selecting Mahler’s gargantuan Second Symphony to showcase the orchestra’s now-legendary dynamism.

© BBC / Sisi Burn
© BBC / Sisi Burn

Strange as the theme of death and resurrection may seem for an orchestra as youthful as the SBSO, the work turned out to be an excellent vehicle for the group. Their dazzling triumvirate of energy, astounding dynamic range and lively communication were all ideally suited to the symphony, not to mention the sheer size of the group: Mahler calls for "The largest possible contingent of strings" and his wishes were certainly met. Dudamel was also aided in his interpretation by the famously difficult acoustic of the Albert Hall: despite occasions where the lower strings were lost in space, the cavernous Hall created the illusion of the great outdoors so suited to the music of nature-loving Mahler.

Despite the grand scale of his orchestration and the lofty aims of his composition ("A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything “), Mahler contrasts moments of blazing orchestral sound with intimate conversations between small groups of instruments. This interplay is something at which the well-rehearsed orchestra excels: musicians often faced away from the conductor in order to pass a musical line to the next player. This exchange was so smooth that it played aural tricks, hiding the change-over under perfectly matched tone and character. Throughout the ninety-odd minutes of performance, the brass were blistering in dynamic, defying the vast Hall to contain the sound. Even more impressive were the more reflective moments, where the orchestra conspired to make the breathing of the audience seem as uncouthly loud as possible.

Although undeniably magical, these quiet sections very often had a problem: perhaps wishing to demonstrate the skill of his players, Dudamel revelled in the most expressive passages just a little too long, resulting at times in a static feeling which attacked the structure of an already very long work. The second movement, intended to provide light relief after the struggles of the first, was treated to a very unusual reading – Mahler’s “long-dead hour of happiness” became closer to an hour and a half of inertia. The orchestra’s tight ensemble suffered due to the slower tempo, although it did unearth moments of shimmering beauty.

Following an enjoyably sardonic third movement in which the clarinet section impressed with their flowing sound and virtuosic playing, mezzo-soprano Anna Larsson rose to perform the fourth movement, entitled ‘Urlicht’ or ‘Primal light’. Larsson used her enormous emotional range to turn this simple song of pure faith into the turning point of the entire work: here the narration of the dead hero’s life moves to the suggestion of hope, and finally the affirmation of resurrection.

But before dawn comes the darkest hour: resurrection cannot happen without the terror of Judgement Day. With their thunderous fortissimo and spirited playing, terror is an emotion the SBSO is adept at portraying. Offstage brass and percussion excelled as the messengers of doom, urging the dead to rise from their graves and march to their final reckoning. Instead of divine righteousness the procession is greeted by soprano and chorus, last night Miah Persson and the excellent National Youth Choir of Great Britain. Persson sang Klopstock’s chorale to eternal life with touching faith, taking risks to ensure the quiet stillness that would later build into a roar of belief. This crescendo was magnificent in effect, with orchestra, soprano, mezzo-soprano, chorus and organ all proclaiming triumph over death. One can’t help hoping that Mahler was right about resurrection: he would have certainly have enjoyed hearing the young players to his work such justice, although the great conductor may have blanched at the more indulgent of Dudamel’s caprices.