Mahler’s 2nd Symphony is a great favourite of Edinburgh classical music audiences, and hardly a year goes by without at least one performance of this (admittedly incredible) work popping up somewhere in the city. This afternoon, it is performed as part of the Usher Hall’s very worthwhile Sunday Classics season, which features a well-programmed selection of international orchestras and soloists. A performance of Mahler 2 may seem a little incongruous with a sleepy Sunday afternoon, but this hasn’t deterred today’s enthusiastic gathering of Mahlerites, who clap briskly as the orchestra come on stage.
The Bruckner Orchester Linz, conducted by Markus Poschner, are thankfully bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; the opening of the symphony is crisply articulated, and sets off at a good speed. Although Poschner takes few risks, he maintains close control of the tempi, which are all well judged. He also has a masterly command of the work’s dynamics, never allowing the loudest sections of the work to become overblown, yet is happy to take the orchestra down to a level that is barely audible, the sound carried away by waves of silence. The result is a crystal-clear interpretation, which is both thrilling and dramatic.
Theresa Kronthaler (alto) is superb, her voice and her understanding of the work are both perfect. However, Brigitte Geller (soprano) neither soars nor hovers above the ensemble as well as she should, although to be fair, she is not helped by the Usher Hall acoustic. The combined force of both the Leeds and Sheffield Philharmonic Choruses makes a splendid sound, but the pitch does drift a bit when they are unaccompanied.
The magnificent Usher Hall organ, blending perfectly with the orchestra, grounds the final climax of the work effortlessly. It is a moment of pure joy, but properly contained by Poschner, who does not allow the orchestra to become indulgent for a moment.
This is not a perfect performance—in particular, from time to time, the brass and woodwind do not enter quite as accurately as one might like—and it does not take us to the edge in quite the way that, for example, Simon Rattle’s famous 1986 recording with the CBSO does. However, no recording can possibly compare to hearing this work live, and this afternoon’s performance has a splendid pellucidity to it, which is difficult to achieve uniformly in a work such as this.
It is certainly strange to be released into the daylight, the afternoon still not over and Mahler continuing to resonate in our ears. However, Mahler’s 2nd Symphony is a remarkable work at any time of day, and it is nice to hear a performance as good as this one. Unfortunately, popularity does not always correlate with excellence of performance, but today’s is happily a great success.