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Review: Petrenko's Mahler II at Liverpool Philharmonic ****1/2

It was voted one of the greatest symphonies of all time in a poll of more than 150 conductors.

And you can see why Mahler’s mighty Resurrection, composed over a period of six years and running to a substantial 80 minutes, has won the hearts and souls of baton wielders everywhere.

All human life – and death – is contained within its five movements which take their listener on a rollercoaster journey into the afterlife, a rollercoaster that becomes a musical juggernaut as it reaches its majestic climax.

It’s five years since Sir Andrew Davis conducted the work in Hope Street, and a decade since Vasily Petrenko took charge of the massed forces of augmented RLPO and Philharmonic Choir as part of his first Mahler cycle in Liverpool.

We’re all 10 years older, including Petrenko (even if he is the Peter Pan of the podium) - and that decade of additional experience channelled itself into a performance that proved even more richly detailed and gloriously vivid than in 2010 and won a deserved standing ovation from the Hope Street faithful.

Imagine how absolutely perfect it might have been then if we’d been able to experience it as one continuous sweeping whole, rather than slicing it in two, the opening movement divided from the rest of the symphony by the interval.

Apparently, that also happened on a couple of occasions during Mahler’s lifetime (the composer's alternative being a five minute silence between allegro and andante).

If so, I can’t imagine the work gained much from the enforced hiatus. Here it was entirely down to the skill and talent of conductor and orchestra that the momentum was regained after the distractions of drinks, ice cream and comfort break.

Vasily Petrenko. Top: With soloists Miah Persson and Jennifer Johnston. Photos by Mark McNulty

The opening allegro maestoso was a masterclass in control, the building grandmother’s footsteps bass line and funeral march rhythm accompanied by a lyrical melody in the violins – a microcosm of the work’s wider marriage of simmering foreboding and deep radiance, and the ebb and flow of sound was mirrored by Petrenko, swaying and swirling like a sorcerer over a spell.

Reconvening after the interval, there was a charming, almost coquettish, Landler-infused andante, followed by an explosion of percussion and timpani which punched the Phil into the scherzo-like third movement. Here Petrenko maintained good tension through its restless rhythms and gently coaxed strings and woodwind into a gossamer-light, lilting melody full of Eastern promise.

Mezzo Jennifer Johnston, who last week sang in the same symphony at the Royal Festival Hall, rose from the ranks of the choir (in both senses, having once been a teenage member of the RLPC) to deliver a beautifully reflective and subtly realised Urlicht.

The lengthy fifth movement, in loose sonata form, is practically a piece in its own right – a great big apocalyptic firestorm that demands heroic levels of stamina.

Here it certainly lived up to its title 'wild herausfahrend’ (storming forth), Petrenko and the Phil unleashing storm force power, driven by the strings and punctuated with pin-sharp percussion and brass.

From this emerged the choir, Mahler’s chorus of saints and heavenly host, singing unaccompanied and with an impressive and sublime serenity, Johnston and soprano Miah Persson adding an additional layer of radiance in their solo exhortations.

And then, the ultimate sturm und drang, the final stage of the journey from ‘tragedy to transcendence’, was accompanied by dramatic golden light and Petrenko practically levitating as he drove the orchestra to a fortissimo finale that rightly lifted the audience to its feet.

The evening opened with a well-deserved presentation to and witty speech from leader Thelma Handy, marking her 25 years with the Phil, and a trio of Mahler’s songs for solo voice and orchestra.

Persson delivered a warm and vocally vivacious performance in two of them, including a cheeky and charming The Changing of the Summer Guard, while Johnston brought a beautifully velvety, full-bodied tone to The World Has Lost its Hold Over Me which also included some languid harp and a gorgeous woodwind shimmer.

The concert is repeated on Sunday.

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