Mahler's Second Symphony is most certainly epic and needs an epic performance to do it justice. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs went some way to achieving this on Friday night. The symphony deals with weighty themes of life, death and resurrection and contains Mahler's own vision of immortality in its triumphant conclusion.

Vladimir Ashkenazy, © Keith Saunders
Vladimir Ashkenazy,
© Keith Saunders

The conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy cut a small figure on the stage in front of the huge orchestral and choral forces in front of him. However, he seemed undeterred, unleashing the full power of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at some times, but revelling in the symphony's tender moments at others. The beginning of the symphony was arresting, with gritty cello and double bass motifs, and funeral calls from the brass section. The climaxes had that earthiness needed for Mahler and were almost unrefined, giving a wonderful, primeval feel to the music. Ashkenazy was not afraid to let the orchestra speak, holding nothing back.

So much happens in the first movement that the listener is left somewhat bewildered at its conclusion. Mahler himself specifies a pause of about five minutes before the second movement. This almost feels like recovery time, and is needed for the audience to make sense of and come to terms with the vast journey of the first movement. The mood of the second could not be more different, and this was successfully captured by the orchestra. The dance-like, playful qualities were effectively delivered. This movement showcased the string and woodwind sections, whose light, airy playing were reminiscent of the Austrian countryside Mahler evokes.

The drama starts again unapologetically in the third movement with loud timpani strokes, as if awakening us from an idyllic dream, transporting us back to the reality of life. The orchestra started this Scherzo well, although I felt it rather lost its momentum as it progressed. The tempo seemed to flag and the music slightly lost its impetus. The music almost sounded too pleasant; it needed to sound more sneering and nasty. It had lost that wonderful gritty, primeval quality so beautifully encapsulated in the first movement. It has to be said too that Ashkenazy did not seem to be always in control of the orchestra, with the orchestra sometimes controlling him.

However, amends were made at the start of the fourth movement. This is one of the most beautifully heartfelt moments of the symphony, when the mezzo-soprano enters for the first time, singing of man's pain and need for God. Michelle DeYoung sang with a wonderful warm intensity, her voice filled with longing. This was accompanied by some intimate string playing and some well-controlled quiet brass playing. This movement was probably the highlight of the evening.

And so to the resurrection itself. The first entry of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs was appropriately hushed and muted and was sung with good control and excellent ensemble. When the great climax of the symphony came, however, they were slightly underwhelming. They needed more power to match up to the glorious full sound of the Sydney Symphony. Nevertheless, the symphony's conclusion had the same life-affirming feel that it always does and received an enthusiastic audience response.