After the recent months of rain, Sunday’s shining spring sun provided the perfect backdrop to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 at the Southbank Centre. This was the second concert in the orchestra’s travels around Europe; already their last in the UK on a sadly brief visit.

 There is nothing brief about Mahler’s symphony, however. The longest piece in the symphonic repertoire, a performance is typically over 90 minutes in length (here it was almost two hours). It turns away from his previous symphonies, focussing on the glories of nature as opposed to exploring the human condition. It is scored for vast forces, including women’s and boy’s chorus and alto soloist.

Its vastness was extraordinarily handled by Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra, the movements somehow flying by as he coaxed a performance that explored every facet of this extraordinary piece. From the opening, there was a real sense of enjoyment in the performance, from the resplendent brass to wonderfully smooth oboes and clarinets. There were moments where it felt as if the entire audience was holding its breath, particularly in the mammoth outer movements.

Those outer movements dwarf the inner ones, yet here Tilson Thomas brought a full range of expression from his players. The second movement had the charm of a country dance, while the trumpet solo in the third movement so perfectly depicted the summer sun that it almost felt as if the audience was in the open air, experiencing the heat of the real thing outside the hall. In the same movement we had spring showers and animals frolicing in the green.

It was interesting to note how much of Tilson Thomas’ conducting was expressive in relation to time-keeping. For the most part, this was entirely effective, the orchestra being so polished that it can follow the smallest of gestures from the maestro. The rare moments it slipped came from the strings, who were not always together during the fast-running entries in the first movement. The leader especially seemed to want to move away from the established tempo in the second and third movements. But these are minor gripes and, without ever being showy, it was clear that Tilson Thomas felt the music as much as the orchestra and voices in front of him.

Equally impressive were those voices, comprised of the ladies from the London Symphony Chorus and the boys from St Paul’s School and soloist, Sasha Cooke, who left no vowel or consonant unturned with her clear, yet rich voice. Coming on stage at the start of the third movement to enable an easy transition into the fourth, she made her presence felt as soon as she rose to her feet, engaged with the music long before singing a single note. The choirs were note and word perfect, and from memory, somehow managing to convey menace when singing “Bimm Bamm”.

The final movement was the most special of all; elegiac, impassioned, imploring, heartfelt, but never self-indulgent. Tilson Thomas and the orchestra took us on an emotional journey that saw some in the audience crying, some laughing. No one remained unaffected. This was a rare moment of true greatness and all savoured it. One can only hope it will not be long before the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra visit these shores again.