The Birmingham Mahler Cycle ends in triumph

Messiaen, Mahler: Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano), Michael Schade (tenor), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle. Symphony Hall, Birmingham. 12.6.2011 (JQ)

Messiaen: Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

The Birmingham Mahler cycle seems to have been a huge artistic success. Certainly the concerts I’ve attended have been excellent and to judge by the reports on the others from my colleagues, Christopher Thomas and Geoff Read, the standard throughout has been very high. However, I think that many eyes have been on the final concert since the cycle was first announced. This concert rapidly sold out and I’m sure the catalyst for that was the return of Sir Simon Rattle to conduct the orchestra that he lead with such distinction for eighteen years. I’ve been to many very fine concerts at Symphony Hall in recent years, both by the CBSO and by distinguished visiting orchestras, but few recently have been sold out as this one was: surely the Rattle Factor was at work. That much was obvious from the warmth of the reception as Rattle came on to the platform at the start of the evening.

Daringly, Rattle chose to pair Mahler’s music with Messiaen’s Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum. This is an awesome work – in the true sense of the word – scored for a large ensemble of wind and brass plus a vast array of metallic percussion instruments. Besides sets of crotales and bells, a huge range of gongs – I counted at least five – and tam-tams was deployed: there were three tam-tams, the largest of which was the biggest such instrument I’ve ever seen. As a former percussionist himself, I’m sure Sir Simon must have relished the sonorities available to him from this enlarged percussion section and, indeed, from the ensemble as a whole.

In his programme note Gerald Larner perceptively drew a parallel between the Messiaen work and the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale of Berlioz. Both are ceremonial works on a grand scale that require large forces of wind, brass and percussion and both were composed, to commissions, to honour the dead – in Messiaen’s case the dead of the two World Wars. Messiaen’s work is cast in five movements, each of which bears a majestic superscription from scripture. It makes hugely imaginative use of instrumental sonorities, ranging from the deepest sepulchral tones to shrill sounds in the highest registers.

This was a magnificent performance, which Rattle controlled superbly and with great authority. I thought his judgement of pacing was ideal and, amid all the frequent tumult, his control of silent pauses – and the way he ensured the softest passages in Messiaen’s score made their mark – was masterly. Sometimes the sounds produced were so loud that one wondered if the acoustic of even a very large building such as Symphony Hall would be capable of containing them – I’m thinking of such moments as the huge chords which end the first movement or the apocalyptic crescendi and diminuendi on the tam-tams in the third section. The piece culminates in a movement that bears a verse from the Book of Revelation: ‘And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude’. This is a slow-moving processional of awesome majesty, depicting the entry of the redeemed into Heaven. Messiaen’s scoring creates a vision of a never-ending procession of the Elect; it’s not just majestic but it also has a wonderful, primitive grandeur. Here, as throughout the performance, Rattle and his players realised Messiaen’s amazingly original and imaginative colours with spectacular success.

After the interval – very necessary for us to get back our breath and come down to earth – came the Mahler. And how cunning of Rattle to pair a work of often-brazen power with the piece in which Mahler’s scoring is more consistently delicate than anything else in his output.

This was the second consecutive concert in this cycle that I’ve attended which has suffered the late withdrawal of an artist due to indisposition. Following Sakari Oramo’s enforced absence from the podium for the Second Symphony a few weeks ago, Magdalena Kožená, the scheduled mezzo soloist, was unable to sing in this performance of Das Lied von der Erde. Miss Kožená had managed to take part in the same programme at the Aldeburgh Festival two nights earlier but for this performance she was replaced by Jane Irwin. In fact, I gather that for the Aldeburgh performance Miss Irwin was literally waiting in the wings in case her colleague had to admit defeat. I caught the BBC Radio 3 deferred relay of that concert in the afternoon before journeying to Birmingham and it seemed to me that Miss Kožená gave a very creditable performance indeed, given that she was not fully fit to sing. However, one can only presume that that effort took too much out of her and she withdrew from the Birmingham concert. However, any disappointment at her withdrawal was assuaged by hearing a wonderful account of the mezzo role from Jane Irwin.

I’ve heard her sing before – and have been impressed – but I don’t recall hearing her before in Mahler. I particularly admired her calm poise – both vocal and physical – although this is not to imply any lack of engagement with the music. But she seemed to understand that there are several stretches in the score where Mahler demands an air of detachment from his mezzo – there are plenty of opportunities elsewhere for emotion. Miss Irwin seemed to me to be at ease with every aspect of the role and I found her performance both enjoyable and also affecting.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in her account of ‘Der Abschied.’ This is a huge challenge for a singer but one to which Jane Irwin rose marvellously. She encompassed all aspects of the song successfully. I admired her sensitivity and sense of intimacy at such passages as ‘Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz’. Just as impressive was the radiant outpouring at ‘Die liebe Erde allüberall…’, a moment superbly prepared by Rattle, and Miss Irwin’s ardour at ‘O Schönheit! O ewigen Liebens…’ This was a memorable, dignified and moving performance.

Opposite Miss Irwin was the Canadian-German tenor, Michael Schade. His biography in the programme made much of his background as a singer of Mozart and bel-canto parts and, indeed, it’s in these lighter roles that I’ve previously heard him. In advance I wondered if he’d have the vocal heft for some of Mahler’s more demanding passages. In the end Schade proved fully up to the often-cruel demands of Mahler’s writing in ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ and he let go some ringing top notes. In the second song, ‘Von der Jungend’, he showed a fine and sensitive dynamic range but, as in his preceding song, there was a good edge of steel to his tone when needed. Mr Schade delivered a fine performance of his three songs. My only reservation concerned his tendency to indulge in rather mannered and distracting physical movement. No doubt this was intended to emphasise his engagement with the text but after a while it came to seem self-regarding and I longed for him simply to stand still and sing!

Impressive though both soloists were, however, the dominant presence was that of Sir Simon Rattle. His control of the performance was nothing short of masterly. His famed attention to detail was consistently evident. I know some feel that he has a tendency to micro-manage a performance. All I can say is that if this was micro-management then it’s fine with me. For all the attention to detail was linked to a clear overview of the music and a sense of line that was completely convincing. He drew from the CBSO playing of great distinction and there was a familiarity, engagement and empathy that made it seem as if he’d never been away. At the end of the work, Rattle drew out the last tendrils of music with the greatest possible refinement. When the last sound died away the silence was as long as I’ve ever heard in a concert hall, Rattle holding the moment and the audience reluctant to break the spell. The silence spoke volumes.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend several very fine Mahler performances over the last year of so – not all of them in Birmingham – but this was in a different league. It was an unforgettable occasion and a triumphant end to Birmingham’s marvellous season-long celebration of the music of Gustav Mahler.

John Quinn

The Birmingham Mahler Cycle reviews in Seen and Heard International

Symphony No 1
Symphony No 2

Symphony No 3

Symphony No 4

Symphony No 6

Symphony No 7

Symphony No 8

Symphony No 9

Symphony No 10 (ed. Cooke)