“Sown to bloom again”: a Once-in-a Lifetime Experience with Gustavo Dudamel and the GSO in Mahler’s Second

SwedenSweden Gustav Mahler, Symphony no. 2: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Gothenburg Symphonic Choir, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Anna Larsson (alto), Camilla Tilling (soprano), Gothenburg Concert Hall, 16.6.2012 (NS)

Gustavo Dudamel’s last concert as principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra was an experience neither I nor anyone else in the audience will ever forget. The orchestra, choir, soloists and conductor gave their utmost, producing a truly memorable performance of this great symphony. The audience was transfixed. I am sure I was not the only person with tears in their eyes at the end.

The music was gripping from the first bars, with the string playing full of intense emotion but also great discipline and technique. The cello and double bass sections in particular played like one instrument. The brass section’s opening chords were percussive, like hammer blows of despair. Despite being described as a funeral march, the first movement is musically and emotionally much more complex, and this was reflected perfectly by the orchestra. The soft and contemplative passages in between the cries of despair offered glimpses of the heaven we were to see revealed in the final movement.

Technically, the most impressive aspect of this performance was the sense of line. Just as in the season’s opening concert of Mahler’s Symphony no. 7, Mr Dudamel achieved a performance that felt seamless and tied the very different movements into one whole. In particular, there was a strong sense of the underlying dance rhythms in the second and third movements.

Anna Larsson’s singing in the fourth movement was nothing short of superb. The moving poem Mahler chose from Des Knaben Wunderhorn acted as a balm after the emotional rollercoaster of the first three movements. The orchestra’s accompaniment was soft and transparent, a demonstration of the huge dynamic range in this performance. It is remarkable that a Mahler-sized symphony orchestra can play as if they are accompanying a song recital and then produce the explosion of sound that immediately follows at the start of the final movement, without sounding at all out of place.

The instrumental playing in the last movement was utterly glorious as Mahler’s storm clouds broke and despair was replaced with hope. But a special mention must go to the choir, who pulled off their extremely challenging sotto voce entry flawlessly. For an amateur choir (admittedly a very experienced one) to sing so beautifully after sitting through an hour of Mahler and without scores is quite remarkable.

In a short farewell speech after the concert Gustavo Dudamel described how he and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra had worked together so well: the challenge was to avoid falling into routine, and to give the audience the passion of a lifetime in one symphony. Nothing could be more passionate or further from routine than this great performance of one of Mahler’s greatest symphonies. In fact, I cannot imagine a more moving performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

Niklas Smith