Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony has a particular significance in the history of the Berliner Philharmoniker: Mahler himself gave the first performance of this work with this orchestra in 1895. Afterwards, he noted contentedly, “Everything was exceedingly successful. The performers were so enthralled and gripped that they found the right expression for everything themselves.”
The symphony has also played a special role in the career of Sir Simon Rattle. When Rattle’s recording of the work with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra first appeared in 1987, it was clear that a remarkable talent had arrived on the scene. The Gramophone magazine wrote at the time: “But where Simon Rattle’s interpretation is concerned, we must go into the realm of such giant Mahlerians as Walter and Klemperer, dissimilar as they were. For we are dealing here with conducting akin to genius, with insights and instincts that cannot be measured with any old yardstick.”
The symphony is a work full of power and life. Although it deals thematically with death and resurrection, it does so rather in an abstract, sublimated way. In contrast to this is the second work of the evening, Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw from 1947. Here, death is given a concrete, almost unbearable form when a narrator gives a stark eyewitness account of the massacre in the Warsaw ghetto.