Semyon Bychkov’s downbeat to start Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony was like a spade slicing deep into the earth for the composer’s hero’s grave, and, ignoring the advice “when you’re in a hole, stop digging”, Bychkov never let up in a searing performance that wove together the epic and the personal with exceptional clarity. The spectacle of vast forces crammed on to the Barbican Hall’s platform might seem to work against the cosmic distances Mahler evokes, but the degree of detail Bychkov drew from the LSO in terms of mobility and focus ensured that the general thrust of Mahler’s programme (which he eschewed after the first performance) loomed inescapably.
And, while the Hall might not have much in the way of resonance, Bychkov and the LSO compensated with lovingly crafted rubato and subtle shifting of viewpoint, with the result that the first movement’s ‘Todtenfeier’ (Funeral Rites, the original name) had exceptional dynamism, not least in the massive and terrifying collapse into the void before the opening’s music reasserts itself. The nigh-on five-minute pause, as requested by Mahler but infrequently adhered to, was here indispensable, although the memory of such ferocity was hardly dispelled by the Ländler second movement, which was effectively hijacked by the force of its second Trio, with the pizzicato return to the minuet/waltz, played with imperturbable delicacy, leaving the most ghostly of impressions.
It left St Anthony’s preaching to the fishes in the third movement mercilessly exposed, its biting swipes at the futility of existence driven hard by Bychkov’s incisive beat. The shift up to D-flat for the start of ‘Urlicht’ is one of the great Mahler moments, and Anna Larsson placed it perfectly, a bridge between two worlds. Bychkov went on to energise the Finale’s conflict brilliantly, although I do wonder if having the off-stage brass playing from backstage is the most satisfactory option – even so, the woodwinds went into spectacular free-fall against their not-so-distant music from beyond.
The move into the choral music was imperceptible, with the members of the London Symphony Chorus (from memory) producing a sound so disembodied you wondered how they breathed. Christiane Karg’s soprano emerged out of the choir seamlessly, and the urgency in her singing contrasted powerfully with Larsson’s sonorous alto. Whatever your view on Mahler’s religion and philosophy in this Symphony, this account left you in no doubt that life is not a rehearsal.