AN extremely rare opportunity presents itself to witness a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, probably better known as the Resurrection Symphony, at St John’s Church, Ranmoor this Saturday.
Lasting anything up to 90 minutes, it is a gargantuan work in five movements and was the composer’s most popular work during his lifetime.
Without realising it at the time, Mahler wrote what would become the symphony’s first movement in 1888 when he penned a symphonic poem with the title Totenfeter (Funeral Rites). He then spent five years wondering whether or not to use it as the first movement for a symphony.
Deciding he would in 1893, he wrote a second and third movement, completing it in 1894. The final movement caused him problems as he wanted a choral finale for what he envisaged as the work’s longest movement and was all too aware of allusions to Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, so he needed the right text.
After much head scratching, his inspiration was fired at the funeral of Wagner’s champion Hans von Bülow in 1894 when he heard a setting of Klopstock’s hymn Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection). He duly set the first two verses and added two of his own that dealt more readily with redemption and resurrection.
Re-orchestrating the first movement, he inserted a penultimate movement in the form of his recently penned Wunderhorn song Urlicht (Primal Light), longing for escape from world-weariness, which leads without a break into the most emphatic response imaginable in the 30-minute choral finale.
A depiction of Judgement Day, it is arguably the most shattering symphonic climax there is, even Mahler couldn’t believe it. He said: “It is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.”
It’s doubtful that Sheffield Symphony Orchestra will have mustered the massive orchestral forces – including quadruple woodwind, 10 horns and 10 trumpets, “the largest possible contingent of strings” – that Mahler wrote the work for.
If they have, there will little room for anyone else in St John’s, not to mention possible structural damage to the church!
The chorus is comprised of two Robert Webb-directed choirs, the Sterndale Singers and Sheffield Chamber Choir, and the soloists are the promising soprano Elizabeth Karani and mezzo-soprano Alice Nelson.
Holding it all together at the last concert in his first season as the orchestra’s music director is the Mark Elder-mentored young Australian conductor, Dane Lam.