Mahler's on the menu for several of London's big orchestras this season. As well as the highly publicised cycle with Gergiev and the LSO, the London Philharmonic Orchestra is tackling a handful of the works over the next few months, under different conductors (including Neeme Järvi in the First Symphony next week). This mini-series got off to an auspicious start last night with a dramatic, driven performance of the 'Resurrection' Symphony under Australian conductor, Simone Young. Right from the start, with the 'cello theme clipped and urgent, it was clear that this wasn't going to be a romantically indulgent reading.
This was the first time I'd seen Young conduct in concert, having only ever heard her in the opera house, confined to the pit. Her conducting style is engaging: she conjures up big, balletic gestures and is so carried along by the music's momentum that she takes the stance of a down-hill skier, every so often flicking her hair back out of the way. It's a refreshingly straightforward approach, whose virtues seeped into this performance.
The opening Funeral March was visceral, powerful and unstinting in its forward motion, Young only occasionally allowing her players time in the lyrical sections. With the violins split right and left, the LPO's sound was a touch raw and occasionally a little rough around the edges, but the audience were kept on the edge of their seats. The big climaxes were unleashed with immense power but without lingering. It was as if this movement, where according to Mahler himself 'the dark feelings hold sway', is not the place to linger and admire the view. The final, tumbling triplets that bring us to the end of the movement were dispatched with great speed, not quite what it says in the score, but far more exciting that some conductors' over-literal application of the brakes.
The urgent, no-nonsense approach was extended to the Andante moderato, which was performed at a flowing pace that emphasised its dance-like qualities, creating as great a contrast as possible between it and the dark first movement. Despite a couple of minor lapses in co-ordination, the orchestra played extremely well, with a delightful lightness of touch that once or twice brought Haydn to mind. The Des Knaben Wunderhorn-inspired Scherzo was rattled off with aplomb, its long, sinewy lines snaking ominously between the players. Perhaps here the tempo was a bit swifter than the ruhig fliessend (calmly flowing) Mahler marks it but the atmosphere was expertly created and we had a particularly welcome opportunity to really hear the dialogue between first and second violins, as they vied with one another. The big outburst about three minutes before the end was overwhelming in terms of power, Young whipping up her players into a frenzy before tension was allowed to slacken.
In Urlicht, mezzo-soprano Dagmar Pecková was rich voiced but suffered from an off-putting Slavic tinge to her German. However, the trumpets, who'd split a few more notes than one would expect up until this point, went some way to redeeming themselves in their hushed chorales. In the faster middle section, there were balance problems: Pecková, perched to the left of the choir, behind the orchestra, struggled to be heard against the busier orchestral accompaniment.
There was no break as Young dove straight into the massive, sprawling final movement. She chose once again to keep momentum going forward so that after the opening flourish, the musings of the orchestra, with various motifs from the work floating around as if disorientated by the shock, were played through without much sense of mystery. The offstage horn calls were less effective than they might have been, answered in the auditorium by an array of less well directed coughs from the audience. The statement of the main theme against pizzicato strings was suitably portentous, even if the clarinets and flutes made slightly heavy weather of it. This is a highly episodic movement that can so often lose its sense of direction and Young did well, through her sense of structure, to stop it meandering off track. I felt some details of the playing were less than ideal: the brass chorale was bass heavy, the tuba's line obscuring the trombone's theme; the horns didn't quite grab hold of all of their big tunes. However, Young's sense of drama meant that this was not a reading for lingering on instrumental details or felicities of voicing; rather, it was clearly goal-oriented.
We roared through one exciting episode after another with the choral finale as that goal; when it came, there was no sense of rushing, we'd earned this grand apotheosis. It's maybe not that surprising that Melanie Diener, who'd had to sit through seventy minutes of the symphony before opening her mouth, sounded as though she could have done with a warm up when she came in with the hushed chorus. She failed to soar quite as effortlessly over the texture as the soprano's supposed to, but there was something nonetheless moving about her singing. The London Philharmonic Chorus made a fantastic sound so that one couldn't help but be blown away in the final ten minutes. The virtues of Young's reading – the sense of drama, the forward momentum – meant that this was not a performance full of revelations, but when so many performances of this symphony are marred by the quest for self-serving insight and the search for something 'new' to say, it's refreshing to hear such a concentrated and single-minded vision of this great work.
By Hugo Shirley