Mahler’s Second was bound to be a make-or-break point in the unfolding ‘Mahler in Manchester’ project. The Halle and BBC Philharmonic are playing all ten of the symphonies this year to mark the Mahler centenary, and this was the first of the really big ones.A couple of weeks ago the BBC Philharmonic gave a lovely performance of No. 1, but it didn’t actually fire me up. I found myself wondering whether maybe I’d just heard it too many times. Or is it that it’s a young man’s piece and sadly it doesn’t quite resonate with me as it used to? I’m sure the fault was mine.
On Thursday, though, there were no such doubts. This was a real, transcendent experience, with everything you could look for: clarity, dynamics, amazing textures, lyrical passion. And, incidentally, a capacity audience. The Bridgewater Hall was full and the atmosphere was charged.
The Second has maybe the most electrifying of all Mahler’s openings: an intense vibrating note on all the upper strings that just rivets your attention until the grumbling, growling basses and cellos start to enter and the whole thing begins to gather momentum like some colossal machine or mountain avalanche. Fascinating and terrifying.
And the melodies! Mahler has an unbelievable fertility in generating one gorgeous tune after another. The melodies just seem to flow out of him: eeerie little folksongs, huge chunky rhythmic patterns reminiscent of Brahms or Beethoven, catchy dance tunes, marches, rhapsodic romantic syrup, postmodern hair-raising discord-patterns, you name it.
And then he collages and interweaves and overlaps all of this to produce amazing drama – changes of mood, gradual revelations, mystical ecstasy, frightening shocks. It’s all there, and the result is a sound-drama (or movie if you like) that has the range of an epic yet keeps you engaged as if he were writing the soundtrack to your most intimate thoughts.
Speaking of which, I discovered Mahler when I was still at school, on my father’s LP records, and then by luck shared rooms at University with a music student, the conductor Peter Lawson, who was a Mahler fanatic. So I got soaked in the music for a whole year and it went somewhere very deep inside. And while other kinds of music have set the pace of my life at different times – the Stones, Jefferson Airplane, JJ Cale, Mingus, Parker, Coltrane, Bach, Stravinsky, and for the past few years Salsa in particular, underneath it all Mahler has never gone away. I find myself singing snatches of his music at the oddest moments. It’s like part of my DNA.
Thursday’s performance absolutely lived up to all of this. Markus Stenz took the first movement at a relaxed tempo but he kept it moving with a steady relentless pulse and there wasn’t a slack or dull moment. The momentum was maintained throughout the symphony and there was a clarity and precision at every point that gave the sense of an orchestra absolutely involved and attentive. The dynamics were interesting too. Stenz, who seemed to be enjoying himself immensely throughout, brought the harps right up, something I enjoyed because it emphasised one of Mahler’s strangest and most delightful textures.
Susan Gritton (soprano) and Katarina Karneus (mezzo) melted into the heart-stoppingly beautiful lyrics of the last movement with crystalline beauty as well as solid volume. The whole thing was so perfect and felt so natural that the symphony as a whole felt more like a geological or spiritual phenomenon – two things that aren’t so far apart for Mahler – than a human composition.
The colossal surges of sound and energy in the finale rolled over us with a huge unanswerable impact. This was Mahler the visionary, experiencing an apocalyptic resolution – maybe a highly unorthdox Day of Judgment, or maybe all beings finally revealing their Buddha-nature. As he wrote, ‘there are no sinners, no just. None is great, none small. There is no punishment and no reward. An overwhelming love illuminates our being.’ I’ll put in a clip of another superb performance – Rattle/CBSO – at the end of this post, so you can get a glimpse of what it’s all about.
I had tears in my eyes at the end – something I don’t recall from previous performances. Half of the audience got to their feet during the applause, and I don’t know why the other half didn’t do the same. I never expect to hear a better performance of the symphony, and I’m grateful to have been present for that one. I don’t want to intensify the competition for tickets, which are going fast or already gone, but if you haven’t yet booked, I would suggest that you think about trying to hear some of the eight symphonies that remain. I couldn’t get to The Song of the Earth on Saturday, sadly, but I’m hoping to hear number 3 on 13 February. I probably won’t bother you with my amateurish comments on it. But if Thursday is any indication, this Mahler season is going to be unforgettable.