A Triumphant ‘Resurrection’ in Birmingham

Mahler: Symphony No 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’. Jane Irwin (soprano), Renata Pokupić (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Kazushi Ono (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham. 18.5.2011 (JQ)

The Birmingham Mahler Cycle entered the home stretch with this, the penultimate concert in what has been a distinguished series. We had been expecting that the CBSO’s previous Music Director, Sakari Oramo, would be making his second appearance in the series, having already led the orchestra in the Tenth Symphony (review). However, he fell victim to illness and, at short notice, his place was taken by the Japanese conductor, Kazushi Ono.

Mr Ono has a strong pedigree, including a lengthy stint as Principal Conductor of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra (1992-2001). He left Tokyo to succeed Antonio Pappano as Music Director of La Monnaie, Brussels, moving, after six years, to a similar post at the Opéra de Lyon. I’d never seen him in action on the podium but he was the highly effective conductor of Joyce DiDonato’s recent Diva, Divo CD, which I reviewed very enthusiastically only recently. Only the previous weekend he’d been conducting on the other side of the Atlantic, in Atlanta, Georgia, but to judge by his conducting at this concert he was not affected by jet lag.

From the very start the clarity of Ono’s beat and gestures impressed. I suppose if you have to engage a replacement conductor at short notice it helps greatly if he can express his intentions clearly and precisely to the other performers, especially if the forces involved are substantial. There was no doubt on this occasion as to who was in charge.

The huge funeral-march first movement began firmly. When, after a few minutes, the music relaxed into the first of several warmer, nostalgic passages, Ono’s direction was sympathetic but, wisely, he didn’t allow the pulse to drag. As the movement unfolded I did have a small nagging doubt in the back of my mind that some of the fast music was being driven at just a fraction too hectic a pace. It was very exciting but I just felt a little weight and gravitas was sacrificed. Towards the very end of the movement, when the final build-up is ushered in by the ominous tread of harps and lower strings, it seemed to me that the pace was just a fraction too quick and, as a result, the music lacked the last bit of ominous foreboding. I should say, however, that my very experienced colleague who was with me did not have any reservations about the pacing of this movement.

Mr Ono made a pause of about three minutes before the second movement. From this point on any reservations I might have had about tempo choice were swept away. I thought his pacing for the Andante moderato was very nicely judged. Much of this movement is gentle in character and the CBSO’s playing exhibited fine delicacy, though the more forceful passages were also well served. As this movement developed it became ever more clear that the conductor was paying a significant attention to detail – though without any excessive point-making.

The third movement had a lively spring, the music enhanced by Ono’s insistence that accents were properly used to give life and expression to the music. One was conscious that an increasingly impressive interpretation of the symphony was developing. The trumpet-led nostalgic section of this movement was beautifully judged.

In ‘Urlicht’ we heard the Croatian mezzo, Renata Pokupić. I don’t believe I’ve heard her before but I was impressed by her expressive singing and warm tone. Her performance of this movement was, as it should be, an oasis of tranquillity before Maher unleashes the tumultuous opening of the finale. This vast musical fresco requires a conductor who is a master of detail yet one who can also always keep the bigger picture in view. Perhaps his significant operatic experience helped in this regard but Ono was most definitely the man for the job. He kept a firm grip on the music yet brought out all the colour and drama.

Symphony Hall is ideally equipped for the distant effects Mahler calls for in this movement. The first offstage brass group we heard was positioned in the off-stage chambers high up to the conductor’s left. Later on, the second brass group was similarly positioned off to his right. Both groups made a telling effect. The twin long percussion crescendi were delivered with stunning impact, typifying the magnificent response of the CBSO. Throughout the evening their playing, both individual and collective, was absolutely superb but in this finale they excelled themselves, delivering playing that was as sonorous as could be wished and yet razor-sharp in attack. Ono directed proceedings with immense drive and energy, yet not in an ostentatious fashion. Eventually he unleashed a stupendous climax, which seemed to depict the very opening of the Gates of Hell, after which the music was allowed to sink down as though exhausted, paving the way for the grosse Appell.

This was superbly realised, the off-stage brass making a splendid effect while the CBSO’s principal flute, Marie-Christine Zupancic, trilled away wonderfully, representing the call of the lone bird. No matter how often one has heard this symphony the moment when the hushed chorus intones Klopstock’s ‘Resurrection Ode’ is a thrilling coup de theâtre, if done well. On this occasion, it was superb – as one would expect from a Simon Halsey-trained choir. The chorus remained seated, rising only in the last few minutes of the piece, and sang from memory. Their contribution, whether hushed or in full-throated fortissimo, was magnificent. Renata Pokupić excelled once again, especially at ‘O glaube, mein Herz’. I’m afraid I was less impressed by the soprano, Jane Irwin. By comparison with Miss Pokupić she seemed less engaged in the music and her performance did little to stir me. The final peroration was impressively built by Kazushi Ono – at one point no less than five pairs of cymbals delivered two almighty clashes in succession! And when the choir, underpinned by the organ and the full might of the CBSO, triumphantly proclaimed ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du’ (‘Rise again, yes, you will rise again’) it was a truly awesome moment, capped off by the sonorous grandeur of the orchestra in the last few pages.

Inevitably, and deservedly, the performers were accorded a thunderous ovation. Mahler’s audaciously theatrical musical vision had been revealed in all its splendour and done full justice by an excellent choir, a superb orchestra and a conductor on top of his game. Kazushi Ono took his applause modestly but there was no doubt that he was the hero of the hour. This was not his debut with the CBSO and I’m sure the orchestra will be doing all they can to secure his services again soon.

So the Birmingham Mahler Cycle moves impressively towards its finale, the return of Sir Simon Rattle to conduct Das Lied von der Erde on June 12 – a concert that sold out long ago. I’m looking forward to that concert immensely but in the meantime this hugely impressive reading of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony will long be remembered by those of us who were fortunate enough to hear it.

John Quinn