The week in classical: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs; RPO/Petrenko; LPO/Mäkelä – review

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Silvery and mottled, maybe a tapestry of moth-eaten velvet, or the dripping walls of a watery cave: the set for English National Opera’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, a staging of Górecki’s Symphony No 3 (1977), achieved full marks for beauty and mystery. As the music began, a simple song growling on lone double basses, this enigmatic interior slowly started to undulate. The stage took on the appearance of a womb as seen on an ultrasound scan. Amniotic fluid never looked so classy. In the corner, a dead body lay on a trolley. A mother (the American soprano Nicole Chevalier) mourned her adult son, from swaddled birth to death.

You will see at once that cheer is not on the horizon. As the director-designer Isabella Bywater describes it, this is an installation – a triptych of three aspects of grief, three micro stories of violent death and loss. The Virgin Mary laments her crucified son; a message is written on the wall of a Gestapo cell during the second world war; a mother searches for her son killed in a Silesian uprising.

Some context is needed to recognise the significance of this symphony in recent musical history – nothing to do with ENO’s staging but important all the same. The Polish composer Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) jettisoned the avant garde techniques of his youth decades before other composers dared. The work’s religious mood was at odds with the anti-religious dogma of cold war communism. Sidelined as mawkish and melodious, it was all but ignored until 1992, when the soprano Dawn Upshaw recorded it on Nonesuch, conducted by David Zinman, to remember victims of the Holocaust. Helped by Classic FM advocacy in the station’s first week, it sold millions, spawning chant and “holy minimalist” imitators and triggering a loosening of postwar avant garde strictures in classical music. No work has had quite that impact since.

As one, the boys’ choir turned themselves into cheerful, celestial bells

Played with clarity and warmth by ENO Orchestra, conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya, the symphony sounded unaffected as ever. Its modal style and mellow, layered string sound burrow into the listener’s soul, without bombast. The work lasts barely an hour, and Bywater’s staging, supported by Roberto Vitalini’s video designs, Jon Driscoll’s lighting and Dan O’Neil’s movement direction, was faultless. Whether it makes any sense in an opera house, or added to the music, is harder to determine. Some heart-in-mouth aerial work and Chevalier’s transformation into a winged angel created an exquisite, slowly unfolding spectacle. Spoiler alert: you may come out feeling glum.

Two varieties of Mahler reminded us of that composer’s own ability to write symphonies of sorrowful songs, but in the case of his Symphony No 3 (1896), the music also gleams, offsetting desolation with celebrations of spring and the sound of children. Under the baton of its music director, Vasily Petrenko, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed this lopsided, majestic work as part of its cycle of Mahler’s three choral symphonies at the Albert Hall. Full of vivid detail and with notable section solos (violin, trombone, oboe, offstage post horn), the symphony’s six movements surged and ebbed engagingly, even if the work’s intensity sometimes felt a little cool. Standing amid the orchestra, the mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp sang Friedrich Nietzsche’s “O Mensch” with glowing resonance: “O man! Take heed… the world is deep!… Deep is its grief.”

Tiffin Boys’ Choir – nearly 60 boys – paid immaculate attention through the long wait until their moment came in the penultimate fifth movement. Then, as one, they turned themselves into cheerful, celestial bells, singing “Bimm, bamm, bimm, bamm” as if it were a perfectly rational and desirable activity. Women’s voices of the Philharmonia Chorus matched them in spirit and commitment. The Adagio finale is the moment we anticipate in this work: a study of serenity and tranquility, surely the most perfect music Mahler wrote (discuss, but not here). Petrenko and the RPO wrung all love and pity from this music, brass ushering in the final sustained major chords, two timpanists thwacking their concluding affirmations in fortissimo unison, driving the work to its blazing conclusion.

With this still ringing in my ears (and that ending always does, for days), I heard the London Philharmonic Orchestra play a different Mahler Adagio, also burdened with a heartfelt lament, from his unfinished 10th Symphony (ed. Erwin Ratz). It followed Thomas Larcher’s whirring, teeming Symphony No 2 (2015-16) – written in honour of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean – and Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1, played with enthralling virtuosity by Julian Rachlin. It was my first encounter with Klaus Mäkelä in concert. The star Finnish conductor, 27, has had a meteoric rise, and currently holds multiple jobs including chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, music director of the Orchestre de Paris and, from 2027, chief conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.

Given all that enviably precocious success, no wonder Mäkelä has already attracted spiky reviews. He seemed to me to know precisely what he was doing, especially in the knotty demands of the Larcher. From the back, you could almost guess what he was conducting without the sound, so extravagant are his gestures. I am agog to hear more.

Star ratings (out of five)
Symphony of Sorrowful Songs ★★★★
RPO/Petrenko ★★★★
LPO/Mäkelä ★★★★