BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican Hall, London

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There is never a dull day at the BBC Symphony Orchestra. On its recent Asian tour the orchestra’s programmes typically ranged from Maxwell Davies to an all-Czech concert (a nod to its Czech chief conductor Jiri Belohlavek), rabble-rousing excerpts from the Last Night of the Proms and Malaysian folk songs.

It is only a few weeks until the announcement of this year’s BBC Proms season – a conference devoted to the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts at the British Library is timed to coincide near the end of this month – and we will find out then what the BBC players have in store for their hard-working summer at the Royal Albert Hall.

In the meantime, the BBCSO’s season at the Barbican hit upon one of its rare standard programmes on Wednesday: the sole work in the concert was Mahler’s Symphony No.3. After a diet of new and unfamiliar music, where an orchestra can get away with less than tip-top playing, it is a good discipline to face up to music that is as well-known as Mahler’s symphonies are today.

In the year since Belohlavek took over, his concerts have been strong on tidy ensemble, weak on emotional engagement. This performance started out as if it would continue in the same vein, focussing upon details in the panoramic opening movement and drawing finely honed solo contributions, while a less cautious conductor might enjoy releasing that pent-up force of nature as Mahler’s world erupts into life. Yet, as accuracy declined later, so the symphony gained in strength of purpose and feeling. The finale might not have been the near-religious experience it can be with Bernard Haitink, but it sounded heartfelt and was graciously played.

Jane Irwin was the strong mezzo soloist. The women of the BBC Symphony Chorus and the Choristers of Westminster Cathedral Choir were well-rehearsed. The one problem was the sheer volume of the symphony in this hall: if the newly worked acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall turn out as well as everybody hopes, I would happily never sit through a Mahler symphony at the Barbican again.

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