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Not content with stretching the orchestra to its limit, Mahler clearly fancied a challenge when composing his Symphony No.2 in the late 1800s.
His triumphant symphonic debut, the ‘Titan’, had called for many more instruments than was the norm, so for his follow-up he decided to go one step further. The gargantuan symphony orchestra would remain, but alongside it was placed an organ, an offstage brass ensemble, and some church bells. And a choir. A very large choir. And, to round things off, some soloists. It’s little wonder that, when- ever the Resurrection Symphony is performed, it’s the only work on the programme.
But if the roll-call of performers sounds indulgent and overpowering, the actual effect is spine-tingling. Mahler was a master at writing for such large forces. Far from feeling overwhelmed by a mass of noise, the very best performances of his Symphony No.2 convey its many different musical ideas, all woven together to create the most thrilling and joyous sound.
Written across a six-year period, the Resurrection Symphony was Mahler’s most loved work during his own lifetime. The premiere performance in March 1895 featured the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (plus a bus load of singers, bell-ringers and the like) with the composer himself conducting. It was, quite simply, a triumph.
Eteri Gvazava (soprano); Anna Larsson (contralto); Orfeón Donostiarra (choir); Lucerne Festival Orchestra; Claudio Abbado (conductor). Deutsche Grammophon: DG 477 0582.
Illustration: Mark Millington