It has to be said, and I may be struck down by the gods of concert programming for saying so, but there are simply too many performances Mahler in the UK. Even arch-Mahlerian Bernard Haitink has referred to a “Mahler cult” displacing even the mighty Beethoven. There are many reasons why this has happened and not the least of these is economics – the works are guaranteed to draw in a crowd. But then if other important works aren’t promoted and played in the same way, then audiences won't take a risk on, say, Franz Schmidt’s glorious Fourth Symphony, and will book tickets instead for yet another performance of Mahler’s ‘Titan'.

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBCSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sakari Oramo conducts the BBCSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

It was no surprise, therefore, that there wasn’t a seat to be had for the BBCSO’s thrilling performance of the Second Symphony, “the Resurrection”, that I attended in spite of my rebellious thoughts. I admit that this is my favourite symphony of the cycle and I find it hard to resist. The evening definitely had a real sense of occasion to it.

I was in two minds about the performance, conducted by Sakari Oramo. Even though it proved to be ultimately hair-raising, there was much I wasn’t sure about along the way, not least in the long funeral march that opens the work, which was composed well in advance of the rest of it. With strong Brucknerian echoes, nevertheless it doesn’t have the obsessive formal logic of the older composer. Instead there is a wildness and unpredictability that should create an atmosphere of impending doom and hidden forces waiting to be unleashed. Oramo’s approach was to linger on the passages of gentleness that are part of the symphony's patchwork and not to give the violent outbursts their full weight. This had the effect of making the movement into an extended lament, rather a terrifying vision. Clearly this was Oramo's intention, but the effect on the structure of the whole symphony was that the sense of final release, whilst thrilling, was not sufficiently earned.

Elisabeth Kulman and the BBCSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Elisabeth Kulman and the BBCSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

You could not find fault with the playing of the BBCSO, who continued their fine form with some excellent characterful playing. Particular mention should be given to the woodwind section in the second and third movements. A slow tempo in the Ländler-like second movement again diminished the tension, even if it was exquisitely played. The scherzo that followed found a good crisp tempo and reached a fittingly contorted climax. Urlicht, the beautiful song for alto that leads directly into the finale, was beautifully sung by Elisabeth Kulman with purity of tone and restrained passion.

And then there’s the finale. A massive construction of ecstasy and fury and then even more ecstasy, which needs to transport the listener out of their humdrum lives into much more lofty realms, some of which is frightening, but ultimately nerve-tinglingly overwhelming. Oramo didn’t quite achieve all of this. Certainly, the final section had everything you could have hoped for, with the BBC Symphony Chorus and The Bach Choir on top form, soloists Elisabeth Kulman and Elizabeth Watts ideally luxurious and the bloated forces of the BBCSO giving it their all. But the opening with the off-stage brass fanfares was far too slow and the long pauses between the sections failed to create the sense of space intended, dissipating the structure.

However, the final climax of the symphony carried all before it. I’m sure everyone would have been more than ready for an encore of the final section, as Stokowski had given at the works first Proms performance in 1963.