The British conductor Mark Wigglesworth has made a speciality of Mahler, with striking results. Young as he is, his understanding of this uniquely challenging "Song-Symphony" is as thorough as that of any other living conductor. But understanding is one thing - what matters in concert is the ability to communicate that understanding (and love) to the orchestra and, through them, to the audience. Listening to the playing of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, one would guess that the piece had been rehearsed in fine detail. Except that too much rehearsal can drain the life from a performance before it has even happened, and this was an exceptionally "live" performance. The effect on the capacity Albert Hall audience could be gauged, not so much from the thunderous applause at the end, but from the absolute silence throughout the auditorium during the many still, quiet passages in the long final movement, "The Farewell". As a flute slowly, almost absently traced a solo over a barely audible low bass note, there were no coughs, no creaking seats. Even the occupants of the corporate boxes behaved themselves.
Crowning the experience were two splendid soloists. The tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson may have been vocally more in character as the cheerfully abandoned "Drunkard in Spring" than as the wild, height-storming oblivion- seeker in "The Drinking Song of the Earth's Misery" but to hear him in the latter movement's refrain, "Dark is life... is death", was to know what resignation is. From her first entry, it was clear that the mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier was going to be vocally strong and beautiful enough, but the performance quickly deepened in expression. The sadness of "The Lonely One in Autumn" lingered through the next three lighter songs, and welled up again in the finale, only to be transfigured in the closing pages. Critics may debase words like "ecstatic" by using them too glibly, but there's no other way of describing Meier's fading "Ewig... ewig... ("Eternally... eternally...") at the end, supported and finally absorbed by the spacious, soft orchestral sound.
If Wigglesworth's Beethoven Pastoral Symphony doesn't live nearly so long in the memory, that won't be because it wasn't intelligent, well- paced and imaginative - just that it was simply good, not excellent. The TV cameras, who left before the Mahler, clearly came to the wrong half of the concert. Or did they? As Beethoven romantically depicted his "Awakening of Happy Feelings on Arriving in the Country" (first movement), their creaks and thuds were a pointed reminder of the 20th century, no longer the global village, but the global city. In the end, it was Mahler, not Beethoven, who provided the escape route.
This concert is repeated on BBC Radio 3 at 2pm today Stephen Johnson