Mahler No 2: Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Explore the Cosmos

Mahler: Anja Harteros (soprano), Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Mariss Jansons (conductor), Philharmonie, Gasteig, Munich, 13.5.2011. (MC)

Mahler: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world)
arranged for chorus by Clytus Gottwald
Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’

Friday the thirteenth holds no fear for me but it certainly proved to be a dramatic evening in more ways than one. Mariss Jansons conducting Mahler’s mighty Symphony No. 2 Resurrection with the renowned Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with two celebrated soloists was undoubtedly the reason for the ‘sold out’ concert and a line of people queuing for returned tickets. In addition to the usual microphones a number of television cameras were operating on the stage.

An unusual start to the concert was a performance of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I have lost track of the world or I have lost touch with the world). Completed in 1901 this is the most famous of Mahler’s cycle of five Rückert-Lieder settings based on poems from Friedrich Rückert. Mahler once said of the song, “It is truly me.” It was Clytus Gottwald who made the arrangement for sixteen unaccompanied voices that was premièred in 1984. We heard the choral song performed by members of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus directed by Michael Gläser lasting around six and a half minutes. I loved the gently rocking motion of the choral song with its exciting excursions into stormier waters. The choir with considerable unison produced a heavenly sound culminating in a wonderful cadence.

Mahler laboured long and hard from 1888/94 on his Symphony No. 2 in C minor making a revision in 1905. Known extensively as the Resurrection Symphony this substantial work for soprano and contralto soloists, mixed chorus and orchestra lasts around 70-90 minutes in concert. At that time Mahler was still carving out a name for himself as a conductor normally composing the score in his spare time, mainly during his summer vacations. Owing to the progressive nature of the writing, its unconventional design, the extended length and the massive forces Mahler must have hardly dared to imagine that he would ever hear it performed during his lifetime.

The trust and empathy between orchestra and conductor that takes time to develop is clearly evident as Mariss Jansons has been the chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus since 2003. Straight away in the opening movement I was struck by the assurance and sheer power of the cultivated Bavarian Orchestra. The force of sound almost pushed me back into my seat. Jansons expertly obtained a satisfying contrast of grey solemn expression from the movement’s predominant funereal character with its exhilarating heroic qualities. Mahler wanted to accentuate the difference between the first and second movements requesting a five minute pause which maestro Jansons observed.

Marked Andante moderato the exquisitely scored second movement is relatively light and good natured. In Jansons’ hands the waltz-like opening could have come from a mid-nineteenth century dance hall in Vienna. Such elegance with abundant fine detail was brought out of the writing. Providing a stark antithesis was the near mocking episode of unsettling agitation and vigour. It was fascinating to see, as well as hear, the guitar-like strumming of the violins and violas and the pizzicato from the cellos was a delight.

Two robust timpani strokes sounding like gunshots announced the opening of the Scherzo. The writing draws on the captivating melody from Mahler’s Wunderhorn song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes). Reminiscent of a klezmer band the schmoozing clarinet solo seemed a characteristic Mahler reference to Jewish folk music. Especially striking was the potency of the energy released in Mahler’s terrible scream of anguish to put a brisk stop to the bucolic frolicking.

Urlicht (Primeval Light) from one of Mahler’s own Wunderhorn songs is the title of the fourth movement. A major highlight was the entrance of mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink in the meditative writing commencing with the words O Röschen Rot! (O red rose!) declaring her yearning for respite from world weariness. In excellent condition the mezzo soprano sounded totally controlled with an attractive timbre and supple projection. Following on closely was the rather brief and spiritually affecting chorale intoned splendidly on the brass.

The final movement opened with Mahler’s terrible scream of anguish, as heard in the Scherzo, given such a tremendous weight of sound it was terrifying before decaying into mere dust. The off-stage brass seemed barely audible and I was not especially convinced by their entry. Confidently led by the biting brass and percussion battery more shattering climaxes were close behind. There was a distinct martial quality to the brass fanfares interrupted only by tetchy woodwind and angry percussion. Off-stage brass lingered in a lament interspersed with birdsong on the flute and piccolo. The 100 or so strong mixed chorus entered with the words Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du (Rise again, yes rise again you will) so mellow and tender the impact was spellbinding. The text O glaube, mein Herz ( O believe, my heart) was sung first by the soprano Anja Harteros to magical effect and her captivating tone was smooth and secure. Both soprano and mezzo-soprano combined with the chorus with the words O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer! (O suffering! All pervading or O all-piercing pain!). With singing of such exceptional quality from the impeccably matched soloists and chorus one could be excused for thinking they had been transported to paradise. The final section began with the familiar Viennese string sound that soon developed for the massed forces, including organ and percussion battery, into an earth shattering climax.

On a distressing note just over half way through the performance of the score an audience member next but one to me in the front row collapsed and lay on the floor for some time whilst receiving attention from paramedics before being led away. I’m sure everyone sends their best wishes for a swift recovery. I would think that only a small number of the orchestra and choir were aware of the distressing situation unravelling so close to them. Certainly Mariss Jansons would have been unaware and he was only a couple of metres away.

In Mahler’s commendable endeavours in exploring the cosmic dimensions of the human soul with the tension, drama and dynamic energy of the massive orchestral and choral forces it felt like being transported to another universe. The magnificent playing of the Bavarian orchestra under Mariss Jansons was remarkable right from the climaxes of sonic proportions to the high strings playing the softest pianissimo. Under the direction of their chief conductor currently I couldn’t name a finer orchestra. Bravo!

Michael Cookson