Mahler famously stated that “a symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything” and his life's work is almost exclusively dedicated to fulfilling that belief. With his “Resurrection” Symphony, there is something intoxicating about seeing Mahler's large-scale vision realised live. Although there were some hints of brilliance here, as a whole this performance by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra never quite made sense of this tumultuous journey to transcendence and renewal.

Daniel Harding © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Daniel Harding
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The opening of the first movement was purposeful, if not arresting; Harding's steady tempo allowed the cellos and double basses space to articulate their phrases well and overcome the acoustic disadvantages presented by such a large hall. However from that point onwards the tempi became slightly erratic, moments of climax seemed hurried and there was little sense of the “solemnity of expression” Mahler calls for in the performance markings. The orchestral playing at times seemed a little below par, with a few split notes from the brass and minor timing issues near the beginning.

In the score, Mahler calls for a five minute gap between the first and second movements. This is rarely adhered to fully today; most conductors compromise by pausing for a few minutes. As a performance marking in the score, it seems reasonable that this pause should be considered part of the piece, and it was disheartening that the audience broke into conversation as soon as Daniel Harding took a seat, thus destroying any sense of reflection on the gravity of the first movement. This is the normally the moment that the two vocal soloists enter the stage, however, on this occasion their seats were still empty when the second movement began and I was intrigued to see when they would make an appearance.

The playing in the second and third movements was markedly better, the delicate, leisurely Ländler was played with subtlety and style, and the meandering Scherzo was well-judged. The third movement famously climaxes with what is referred to as either a “cry of despair” or a “death shriek” and it was bizarre that this was the moment it was deemed appropriate for the two vocal soloists to walk down the stairs and onto the stage. It was perhaps thought that the sheer volume and intensity of the moment might prove enough of a distraction but unfortunately the opposite was true, and it brought this important moment in the score, where the performance was just beginning to come together, back down to earth.

Kate Royal and Christianne Stotijn © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Kate Royal and Christianne Stotijn
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Christianne Stotijin gave a compelling performance of the fourth movement, Urlicht, a song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, delivered from the middle of the orchestra, to the left of the stage, in front of the percussion, as opposed to next to the conductor. Yet, as we arrived at the finale it did not feel as though we had been on a journey. Due to an odd mix of musical and staging factors, the performance had felt episodic, lacking the sense of an all-encompassing narrative. The orchestral playing had improved, the antiphonal brass passages that take place off-stage were particularly atmospheric, and the combined forces of the Swedish Radio Choir and the Philharmonia Chorus produced a magical sound, the rich timbre matched with impressively tight control for such a large vocal ensemble. The climax was still powerful and cathartic even if the foundations hadn't quite been laid for it in the preceding movements.

***11