Sonic and visual spectacle: Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony is the LPO’s season opener

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Sally Matthews (soprano), Beth Taylor (mezzo-soprano), London Philharmonic Choir (artistic director: Neville Creed), Members of the BBC Symphony Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 23.9.2023. (JR)

Edward Gardner conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra © LPO


Mahler – Symphony No.2 (‘Resurrection’)

There are few works to rival a Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony for sonic and visual spectacle with which to open an orchestra’s new season. Nearly 130 orchestral players (including those offstage) and a massive 175 chorus members – the London Philharmonic Choir being augmented by 40 from the BBC Symphony Chorus – raising the roof at the end of the finale. But more of that anon.

Mahler was clearly a depressive by nature, even in his late twenties, when he came to compose his Second Symphony, dark feelings found expression in his music. The themes seek to convey life and death, anguish, anxiety and, ultimately, hope. Gardner clearly grasped and comprehended the structure of the work; his opening bars were flung at the audience as a statement of intent – we knew we were in business. Cries of anguish from woodwind and brass, the double basses thwacking their instruments without restraint, horns raising their bells, timpanists often using hardest of sticks.

Though the attacks were continual, Gardner was equally impressive in the quieter passages and movements which offered peace and respite; the two harps were especially well coordinated. The slow second movement was played with the utmost delicacy.

Edward Gardner conducts Beth Taylor (l, mezzo-soprano), Sally Matthews (r, soprano), London Philharmonic Choir, Members of the BBC Symphony Chorus and LPO © LPO

The two singers were very well matched to the work. Young Scottish mezzo-soprano Beth Taylor was an utter revelation, hers is a name to watch; she is clearly already much in demand. She bloomed in her ‘Urlicht’, after a beautifully soft, mesmerising opening. She was most expressive and German diction exemplary (she has sung a great deal in Germany, but this was her debut with the LPO). She was accompanied by three fine trumpeters (Paul Beniston, Anne McAneney and Tom Nielsen). Soprano Sally Matthews donned her angel wings and soared impressively high above the stave.

The finale (Im Tempo des Scherzos) was, inevitably, the final showdown. After the orchestra had hinted at what was to come, the chorus began, some seated, some standing with some wonderfully hushed sounds, most evocative. When they rose to sing at full volume, the Earth moved. Their German diction was faultless too, offstage trumpets and horns returned to the hall to stand between the choirs and add heft, then the Royal Festival Hall organ joined in to further increase the decibels. The percussionist hammered his tubular bells, the brass let rip. It sent shivers down my spine. Technically, this may not have been a flawless performance (few live major Mahler symphonies are), but this was an incredible team effort and an uplifting performance. For the many who missed it, it was recorded and filmed by the LPO and will be available at some later stage on the orchestra’s own label and for the Apple Music Classical app.

The audience played their part too: in the quiet sections, you could have heard a pin drop. And then, after the choir had told us we would all rise again (‘Auferstehen’), at the end of the work there was an immediate standing ovation – very well deserved.

Not every city can put on a large-scale Mahler symphony with such success; it needs a big hall to accommodate the huge sound, a professional chorus of size and quality (which can also sing in proficient German), a fine orchestra and a more than competent conductor attuned with Mahler. Thankfully, London is one of those few cities and this was a performance to relish and remember.

John Rhodes

5 thoughts on “Sonic and visual spectacle: Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony is the LPO’s season opener”

  1. The chorus is made up entirely of unpaid volunteers (although Roddy Williams did join us out of his sheer love for this magnificent work).

  2. Yes! I noticed Roderick Williams in the choir (listed in the programme also) but none of the reviews I have read mention this; he seemed to be having a great time! Thank you all for a magnificent performance, taking me back to my first Mahler 2, nearly 50 years ago with the Hallé and the great Arvīds Jansons.

  3. I’d like to add my compliments. It is years since I’d heard anything ‘big’ at the RFH and the incredible performance was – for me – as much due to the glorious acoustics. It allowed the orchestra to ‘live’ with the music.

    It was odd but I was so staggered by the sound that for the first 10-15 minutes I closed my eyes unconsciously to wallow in the sound. I could place almost every instrument in the orchestra even though I was in Rear Stalls.

    A blissful and totally fulfilling performance. I’ve seen the Second Symphony almost 10 times over the same number of years and I can say that this is the best of all.
    Thank you – sorry for the essay!

  4. My best friend S. enjoyed the ‘Backstage…’ programmes shown on Sky Arts over the three weeks preceding the TV showing of the concert. Sadly, I couldn’t tempt him to watch the full ninety minute symphony. His loss! Magnificent, made me wish I had learned a musical instrument, other than the recorder.


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