Mahler with Surprisingly Limited Emotional Impact

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann and Mahler: Francesco Piemontesi (piano), Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano), Chen Reiss (soprano), Guildhall Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 1.12.2012. (JPr)

Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Mahler: Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)

I can rarely think about Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony without remembering the words of Leonard Bernstein when he performed it in November 1963 in memory of his friend President Kennedy; he explained he chose this symphony because of ‘its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain’. He further said, ‘We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him’. However scrupulously prepared and admirably played by Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, this intense and rampant Second failed to achieve the significant transcendence that Bernstein’s words suggest it should – or the greatest performances indeed do.

To elaborate, the technical execution was admirable (flautist Michael Cox and piccolo-player Kathleen Stevenson brought a suitably eerie quality to the bird of death near the end) but overall there was a total lack of spiritual – and even, possibly, emotional – fervour, and though definitely powerful, brutal and despairing, it was never, for me, exalting or ecstatic enough. It was all a bit disjointed too, and although hard-driven during each movement, Bělohlávek seemed to take every available opportunity given to him to halt the music before moving on. Of course it is well known that Mahler requested a five-minute pause between the first and second movements that few conductors actually allow and here again there was barely time for the soloists to enter to the habitual – and unnecessary – tension-breaking applause before the Bělohlávek forged on. Overall his rampant, disturbing Second was often rather like Mahler-as- Shostakovich.

The ‘Resurrection’ Symphony provides plenty of pitfall traps for the orchestra with its funeral music, military marches, waltz-like Ländler and klezmer interludes, brass fanfares conjuring heaven’s gates, and all manner of other portentous outbursts and the BBC SO under their Conductor Laureate overcame these admirably during another exemplary Mahler performance. The opening bars never fail for me because the tremulous violins and violas, followed by the rough-edged declamations are clearly inspired by the Prelude from Wagner’s Die Walküre – a work I had heard exactly a week before in Berlin. There is then the build-up toward the first of a number of shattering climaxes, each quickly dissolving before Mahler cranks up the tension once again.

This life-affirming symphony is indeed Mahler’s vision of the triumph of life over death and the soul’s return to God and in the final movement the composer begins to impel all concerned towards the day when ‘There is no judgement; there are no sinners; no just men; no great and no small; there is no punishment and no reward! A feeling of overwhelming love imbues us with the bliss of knowing and being.’ Mezzo Katerina Karnéus sounded fragile at first and then rather too operatic for ‘Urlicht’ and missed the trance-like rapture the soloist should reveal in the fourth movement. However, a wonderful chorus of young ‘principal-study singers’ from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, all with most of their lives in front of them, gave a very affecting frisson to the whispered word ‘Aufersteh’n’. They also made a notable contribution to Mahler’s concluding tsunami of sound. One of the Chorus’s sopranos might have benefited from the opportunity to be the soprano soloist and I am sure would have done just as good a job as Chen Reiss, who though undoubtedly a talented singer, didn’t really shine in the few moments Mahler allots her.

Finally, there was the evidence that perhaps the limited emotional impact of this performance was partly due to the Barbican Hall itself; with the muted offstage brass and percussion failing to impact on what should have been a truly apocalyptic conclusion.

Performances of the Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony were once deemed so special – partly because of its ninety minute-plus span – to be enough on its own. Should other music be programmed with this symphony? I think not. The BBC in their wisdom gave the encouragingly full Barbican Hall audience another performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, whose only identifiable association with the Mahler we would hear after the interval was in both composers admiration for Bach and counterpoint. The young Francesco Piemontesi showed how, below the arch-Romantic surface, Schumann was in total command of Classical–era techniques. His playing was clinical and precise, as was the voicing and articulation, so much so that it was clear how Schumann — who was also an important commentator on music — had employed all Bach’s methods. I loved the lyrical quality of the performance and the soloist’s dialogue with the orchestra that Schumann has as an equal to the piano in his concerto. However, I could not see anything in Piemontesi’s cool and reticent stage demeanour to set him apart from any number of his peers however talented a pianist he undoubtedly is – but time will surely tell.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the BBC SO’s forthcoming concerts visit This concert is available via the Radio 3 website and the BBC iPlayer Radio app for seven days from 3 December.