Don’t miss the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s free live webcast of Mahler’s Symphony No 2, “Resurrection” on Sunday, December 6 at 3:00 PM ET (GMT -5) at http://www.dso.org/live.aspx.
Leonard Slatkin will be conducting the DSO. Sunday’s program will begin with the world premiere of Slatkin’s Kinah. This will be followed by Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with soloists Melissa Citro and Kelley O’Connor.
Slatkin’s 1982 recording with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra was praised for his “clear, intelligent presentation of the score,” and the recording is deemed “an outstanding achievement.”  So Sunday’s concert promises to be memorable!
If you’re not familiar with this symphony, and would like to know what to listen for to extract Mahler’s message from the music, help is on the way. You can find an article on the symphony that includes audio files and musical notation of key moments in the symphony here. The audio files will help to point out musical phrases to listen for in each movement.
Another useful resource, one in which you can hear and see an actual orchestra play, is a video on the first movement of the symphony provided by the Khan Academy, which can be followed up with an uninterrupted performance of the movement. I found the video very helpful; I wish they had prepared one for each of the movements.
You can find reviews of the most well-known recordings of Symphony No 2 here, along with a description of the symphony itself.
I encourage you to check out one of the detailed listening guides. In the meantime, let me give you some background information that I have found, and call upon Mahler himself to explain his purpose.
Mahler wrote the Resurrection Symphony in the period from 1888 to 1894. The symphony explores the concepts of death, life’s purpose, and resurrection. Wow. So, is there anything else you’d like to throw in there, Mahler? In all fairness though, Mahler said, “The term ‘symphony’ means creating a world with all the technical means available.” [1, p 97] Ok, so let’s go.
The first movement was originally composed as a symphonic poem, Totenfeier (Funeral Rites). Mahler explains, “We are standing beside the coffin of a man beloved. For the last time, his battles, his suffering, and his purpose pass before the mind’s eye.” 
The second movement, lyrical and nostalgic, looks back, “A memory of a blissful moment in the dear departed’s life and a sad recollection of his youth and lost innocence—a shaft of sunlight from out of the life of this hero.” 
The third movement is like a folk tune contorted in some nightmarish way. When you wake from a nightmare “and have to return to the confusion of life, it can easily happen that this ever-moving, never-resting, never-comprehensible bustle of existence becomes horrible to you.” .
The fourth movement is a song, Urlicht (Primal or Primeval Light), drawn from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (as is the case with the previous movement). Mahler explains, “The questions and struggles of the human soul for God, as well as its own divine nature and existence, come to the forefront. After these terrifying questions comes the answer: redemption.” 
The fifth and final movement begins with a perhaps terrifying vision of Judgment Day. As the tumult subsides, the choir enters, imperceptibly softly at first, and sings a song of redemption, which builds to a stunning fortissimo climax. 
Afterward, give yourself some time to absorb all that you have just heard, it is incredible.
I hope you’ll have an opportunity to listen to this intense, remarkable symphony, and I’d love to hear your comments.
- The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection, Ted Libbey. New York: Workman Press, 1994 p 99.
- The Anchor Guide to Orchestral Masterpieces, Melvin Berger, New York: Anchor Books, 1995 pp 164-166.
Image attribution: Gustav Mahler, photograph by E. Bieber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGustav-Mahler-Kohut.jpg