A transcendent experience

When we lived in the West Midlands I became a member of the City of Birmingham Orchestra Society and often would attend afternoon rehearsals on my day off, when Louis Fremaux was the conductor. Shortly before we moved he had a row with the managment and summarily left. For a year the orchestra was without a full time director, though Erich Schmid filled the gap with a cycle of the Beethoven symphonies. During that time the young Simon Rattle was appointed as the director of music and the sensational partnership began between a charismatic conductor and an excellent provincial but soon internationally famous orchestra. Rattle began his first season performing the seven Sibelius symphonies. Then he moved onto the Mahler symphonies. Living in London from 1979, I made sure that whenever I could I was present at the C.B.S.O. and Rattle’s rare appearances in the capital. And it was they and C.B.S.O. Chorus who introduced me to Mahler’s 2nd. ‘Resurrection Symphony on one never-to-be-forgotten evening.

The symphony is in five movements. Mahler described the first of these as ‘funeral rites’, raising the question of the purpose of life. The next two movements are linked by being in triple time; the first a typical ‘landler’ (waltz rhythm) and the other an orchestral transcription of the song ‘St. Anthony and the Fishers’. The fourth introduces the beautiful song ‘Ulricht’ in which the imagery is of the soul leading mankind out of death into the light of God; the soloist being the incomparable Janet Baker, as on two of my three CD’s of the symphony. Then the finale, loud and long until, following a summoning of the legions of the dead by horns and brass outside the main concert hall, there is the hushed entry of the chorus ,‘Arise, arise..’. As I heard this for the first time in the Royal Festival Hall (hardly the most numinous of places) I felt myself levitating from my seat, almost a resurrection of my own.

A visceral, spiritual ecstasy beyond expression, but to me utterly real.

I can get excited at a concert, have been known to rise to my feet like a dervish when a work reaches its conclusion shouting ‘bravo’s’ with abandon. But this was quite different and although I recall it as I listen to Barbarolli and the Berlin Philharmonic, Rattle and the C.B.S.O. and Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic, it is an experience unique to its moment, never equalled before or since.