Maazel conducts Mahler 2 with the Philharmonia

Mahler : Sally Matthews (soprano), Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), BBC Symphony Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 17.4.2011 (CG)
Gustav Mahler : Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection” (1888-1894)

This concert was part of an important Mahler cycle; between now and October, Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonia will perform all nine of the completed symphonies, several song cycles with orchestra, and the Adagio of Symphony no. 10, in various venues in the UK, Luxembourg, France and Germany.

Mahler has always been something of a problem composer for me. Some of it I adore, but some leaves me baffled or worse. Ouch! I have probably already offended legions of serious Mahler aficionados – and yet others may understand. And that’s par for the course – Mahler has always been a somewhat divisive figure. Julian Johnson, in his intelligent and well-argued forward to this concert cycle, discusses this very same issue, reminding us that it was not until the 1950s and ’60s that Mahler became popular with conductors, concert planners and audiences. Before then, criticisms were frequently voiced that his symphonies were unendurably long and formless, his orchestration defective, and basic material frequently trite. And not all of these critics were stupid; they had justifiable points of view, even if we now disagree with much of what they said. One thing’s for certain; successful performances of Mahler’s work depend, more than most, on sympathetic, committed performances. The conductor has to understand the structures thoroughly, or something taut and dramatic can easily turn into an incoherent mess. And the symphony heard tonight is a prime example; it’s a difficult piece to bring off. And of course with its five movements lasting ninety minutes or so, it’s a very long work.

Maazel, now eighty-two, may have come to Mahler’s work relatively late, but now has vast experience of it, and his recording of this symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic is often cited as being close to perfect. So the audience expected an authoritative reading and by all standards got it. The Philharmonia, like all the main London orchestras, is currently on top form. The soloists were terrific, the chorus sublime. Maazel was totally, but totally, in control; he knows the music backwards and conducts with no score. You feel that everything is the result of deep thought, patient consideration, and reverence for the music.

The intensely dramatic first movement, completed years before the others, had power and energy when needed, but also periods of repose and passionate expression. Its complicated form, with starkly contrasting sections, came off well. Maazel waited the customary three minutes before embarking on the second movement, which for me is the odd man out; personally, I find Mahler in ländler-influenced mode more difficult to take, and I wondered if my feelings were perhaps not helped tonight by Maazel’s somewhat leisurely tempi.

The third movement, based on Mahler’s setting of the Wunderhorn song telling of St Anthony’s sermon to the fishes, had plenty of gusto and impatience, but it was with the fourth movement that things really started to catch fire for me. This starts simply and sincerely, and then religious and folk elements combine to become progressively more operatic. The singing of Michelle DeYoung was fabulous, and what’s more her facial expressions were a joy to behold throughout this and the next, final movement. Such wonderful spirit, and such involvement!

And so to the climax of the symphony, and one of Mahler’s most complex movements. Off-stage horns and trumpets, organ, chorus, soloists, huge orchestra – the works! After the turbulent beginning and the extended orchestral passage, the off-stage trumpets and horns answered each other perfectly, together with birds (a flute and a piccolo) in the orchestra. It was magical. The “Resurrection” chorale was beautifully intoned by the BBC Chorus, to be joined by Sally Matthews, gloriously beseeching us to rise to immortal life. In the final pages Mahler creates an extraordinary climax of incandescent sounds from his vast resources, and Maazel’s handling of it was genuinely inspirational. Occasionally gripping the handrail of the podium for support, Maazel’s engagement was absolute. He and his forces won a much-deserved standing ovation.

When one has been moved by music, of course it seems churlish to quibble, but afterwards, as I wandered in the balmy night air across Hungerford Bridge, I did find myself asking if this was really quite the ultimate experience overall. Maazel’s was a careful but always musicianly interpretation, never offensively showy or melodramatic, but steady, safe, and keenly judged. All this is highly commendable, and it’s great conducting. So if I have any doubts, they amount to two, and they’re personal. The first may be to do with Maazel’s generally slow tempi; the performance was considerably longer than most, evenincluding his own recorded version referred to above. Were some tempi simply too slow to maintain complete absorption?

The second is to do with the piece itself – it’s that second movement! Mahler himself worried about it, especially in the way it differs in just about every conceivable way from the first; while one could not continue with anything resembling the feverish tone of the first, is the second just too soft-centred? Does the extreme contrast result in an excessive loss of drama? Mahler himself recognised that a problem existed, which is why he requested the long pause between the two movements. Nevertheless, he gave it a final thumbs-up, and it does convey a certain kind of na ïvety that he obviously felt had to be part of his grand design. And with that I think I should say no more other than to encourage others to catch more of this notable Mahler cycle while there’s still time.

Christopher Gunning