Emotionally Draining, Exciting, Exalting, ‘Resurrection’ Symphony from Bychkov and LSO


Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony: Christiane Karg (soprano), Anna Larsson (alto), London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 4.2.2018. (JPr)

I remember the conductor Benjamin Zander once succinctly describing the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony’s first movement as ‘a drama about death, but not a funeral march as it has too wide a range of experience’ and its last movement as ‘a grand cantata for chorus, orchestra and soloists which is an experience of the day of judgement; about the resurrection of mankind.’ In between he noted that there are ‘two intermezzi both of which look back, one to happier times and the other full of despair, futility and the bitterness of ordinary life’. Then there was the fourth movement and the song ‘Urlicht’ which takes us nearer to God. Overall said Zander Mahler’s 90-minute symphony is about ‘Death and Transfiguration, from darkness to light and on a gigantic scale.’

Mahler wrote the first movement when he was 28 and he went to Hans von Bülow and played it for him. Bülow covered his ears, shook his head, and said ‘if this is music I understand nothing about music’. Mahler got von Bülow’s approval for his conducting but not for his composing, and it took him six years to recover from this devastating criticism. So, Mahler did not complete the symphony until seven years later. The second, third and fourth movements were derived from other compositions, and he could not find a way to finish it until he attended the memorial service for von Bülow in Hamburg in 1894 and heard a choral setting of Friedrich Klopstock’s ‘Resurrection Ode’ (Die Auferstehung).

My reminiscences of Zander culminate in him saying how – with this symphony – Mahler invented a new kind of music which can be considered ‘emotional counterpoint, a polyphony with the simultaneous emergence of themes and motives each with a different mood or emotion… and (in which) the secret is to listen to every voice heard in the music.’ Conducting the London Symphony Orchestra was one of the world’s finest conductors, Semyon Bychkov, and his Mahler – and particularly this ‘Resurrection’ Symphony – is a known quantity (click here), but what Bychkov does so well in all the repertoire he conducts – whether in the concert hall or opera house – is to let his audience hear ‘every voice heard in the music’. No detail seems too small – whether it was the tinkling of a triangle or the haunting offstage trumpets – and the playing of all sections of the LSO was as near-perfect as it is possible. For once the often-derided acoustics of the Barbican Hall became an irrelevance as the hall was gloriously filled with perfectly balanced warm sound. From the moment when the magnificent London Symphony Chorus began their contribution with an impeccably hushed ‘Auferstehn’ their every word was crystal clear.

The long first movement opens in C minor with growling cellos and double basses. Bychkov brought much tenderness to the lyrical passages, though not at the expense of the underlying tension and forward momentum. According to Mahler in this music ‘the dark forces hold sway’. Tumbling triplets bring the movement scurrying to its end with a sense of dread that would be only be allayed by the relief and redemption inherent in the music that was to follow after a few minutes respite: though not the five minutes Mahler specified.

Bychkov encouraged a charming gentle lilt to the Ländler of the Andante moderato and it was as ‘Schubertian’ as Mahler requested. The third movement is an orchestral version of Mahler’s song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn in which St Anthony preaches to fishes who – despite seeming to listen to what he says – return to their sinful ways when he has finished. Bychkov paced it perfectly according to Mahler’s instructions ‘In ruhig fliessender Bewegung’ (Calmly flowing) while not downplaying the acerbity there is from the woodwind. The big climax was overwhelming and Bychkov stirred his forces up into a real frenzy. Next, Anna Larsson sang a deeply profound ‘Urlicht’ with dark and pungent tone. The massive final movement rarely disappoints and nor did it here. From Bychkov and the LSO the Finale had raw drama as together they mused on earlier motifs from the work which coalesce to provide a musical summation of all we had heard before. There was a portentous statement of the Dies Irae in the pizzicato strings and the resurrection chorale sounded out in the trumpets. Another climax and then the off-stage band signalled the Last Trump and flute and piccolo – in typical Mahlerian fashion – warbled a bird song. The spatial separation Bychkov brought to the music was a revelation in my experience of Mahler in the Barbican Hall.

Beginning with ‘Auferstehn, ja auferstehn wirst du’ (Rise again, yea, rise again shalt thou) the London Symphony Chorus made the last ten minutes incandescent with Christiane Karg’s bright soprano solo voice intoning amongst them. Anna Larsson, along with the LSO’s mellow violas now sang the words Mahler wrote himself: ‘O glaube, mein Herz, O glaube’ (Oh believe, my heart, oh believe). The symphony swept dramatically heavenwards under Bychkov’s sweeping baton to its climactic ecstatic coda. In the key of E flat, the chorus sound built to the final statement of the ‘Auferstehn’ theme. Bychkov drove his orchestra and chorus, playing triple forte, on an upward trajectory until the sound they produced was emotionally draining, climaxing in a shattering – yet strangely life-affirming – chord of E flat major to end the work. The pure visceral excitement and exaltation of these final bars brought Bychkov and his combined forces an enthusiastic – and thoroughly deserved – standing ovation from many in the Barbican Hall.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the LSO click here.

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