From the bold initial horn statement of the opening movement it was clear this was to be a performance in which guest conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste was determined to revel in the gloriously lush, wrap around sound of the CBSO. Indeed, if there was to be a nagging doubt throughout the performance it was the fact that at times this approach seemed to obscure the myriad detail and extremes of Mahler's scoring in his vast nature inspired canvas.
The darker moments of the first movement (marked by Mahler decisive and resolute) were captured with authority as the battle of summer over winter, or more tellingly perhaps life over death, unfolds in characteristically funereal fashion. There were some hugely impressive climaxes with the brass demonstrating an admirably large, yet never forced sound. The exception was the famous trombone solo, which did not quite convince the first time around, the sound breaking slightly and the style lacking the final degree of arrogant drama necessary. The return of the same solo later in the movement more than made up for it. As in so much of Mahler's music, however, this movement is all about contrast and extremes, the extremes existing on almost every level, tempo, dynamic and scoring amongst them. I have to admit that in this respect, part way through the movement, I found myself reminiscing back to Rattle's days with the orchestra, never a man to shy away from grabbing Mahler's music by the scruff of the neck, however ugly the effects may seem, to spine tingling effect. A case of accentuation over control. The closing paragraphs of the movement ignited in a magnificent fashion but overall I was not convinced that every ounce of drama had been wrought from this titanic musical struggle.
To immediately capture the graceful charm of the second movement minuet (Mahler had originally given the movement the title "What the flowers in the meadow tell me") in the wake of the mammoth first is no mean feat. Yet here Saraste was particularly successful, the delicate phrasing being echoed in some delightful playing, notably from the woodwind. The same could be said of the "scherzo" which follows, this time Mahler's response to the animals of the forest. The marking here is "comfortably, playfully", and the animated style of the playing captured the playful element of the composer's instruction in delightful vein. The off stage post horn solo was played with great panache by Jonathan Quirk and the chilling shadow Mahler casts over the closing paragraphs of the movement was impressively effective. The Finnish mezzo Lilli Paasikivi sang with great beauty and sensitivity in the ensuing fourth movement, her hauntingly rich voice capturing the spirit of Mahler's misterioso marking wonderfully well although the orchestra did not always match her in the feeling of hushed stillness that would have made the movement truly memorable. The "cheekiness" Mahler calls for in the fifth movement was there in abundance with the girls of the City of Birmingham Youth Chorus "bimm-bamming" to their hearts content and the ladies of the CBSO Chorus also making a fine contribution.
It was in the final Adagio, however, that the performance really came into its own with Saraste's controlled approach to the score finally paying real dividends. The lush, deeply impassioned playing that he drew from the strings was deeply felt indeed whilst the sense of pace and organic growth to the inexorable conclusion was handled with consummate skill. An emotionally charged conclusion to a performance that whilst not always consistent gave much to enjoy.