United States Mahler: Kristen Vogel Lindenmuth (soprano), Sarah Mattox (mezzo-soprano), University Symphony, University Chorale (Giselle Wyers, director), UW Chamber Singers (Geoffrey Boers, director), Jonathan Pasternack (conductor), Meany Hall, Seattle, 7.6.2013 (BJ)
Mahler: Symphony No. 2
For the Director of Orchestral Activities at the University of Washington School of Music, this Mahler “Resurrection” was also a swan-song. For reasons I am at a loss to guess at, given the outstanding quality of the performances he has led in the past three years, Jonathan Pasternack’s position at the school is not being extended—starting in August, he will be Visiting Professor of Conducting and Director of Orchestras at Ithaca College in upstate New York.
It was only to be expected that a conductor who has already given us blockbuster accounts of such works as Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony and Nielsen’s Fourth would choose to go out with a bang, and there are few works that offer as big a bang as Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, popularly known as the “Resurrection” on account of its closing setting of Klopstock’s hymn of that title. I suppose it must be acknowledged that the composer essayed his biggest bang ever in his Eighth Symphony—but to my ears that work’s closing peroration falls short of the monumental effect he achieved in No. 2.
It’s not surprising either that Ken Russell should have chosen, in 1974, to make a film about Mahler. He must have realized that Mahler was indeed a sort of Ken Russell of music, an artist whose stunningly imaginative invention is interspersed with kitschy moments; to call such excesses “meretricious” and “banal” is about as percipient and illuminating as to say that Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is “devotional.”
There was much to admire in the performance Pasternack drew from his massed forces. To begin with, he got the phrasing of the opening, with its superimposition of short figures in fast tempo over a quite different basis pulse, exactly right, which in my experience some very eminent maestros haven’t. The funereal intensity of the first movement, the grace of the slow minuet that follows, the quicksilver flow of the third movement, and the quite deliberate banality of the passage in the finale where Mahler depicts the graves opening and all creatures emerging from the soil, shrieking, their teeth chattering (“Now they all come marching: beggars and rich men, common people and kings, the Church Militant, the popes. All share the same anxiety, shouting and quivering with fear, because none is just in the eyes of God”)—all this was vividly characterized. The orchestra responded worthily to the composer’s and the conductor’s demands, and Pasternack managed the tricky offstage elements very well in terms of both balance and phrasing.
The last two movements’ vocal sections were, I felt, not quite so successful. This was not the fault of the two vocal soloists: in the fourth movement’s hushed setting of Urlicht, mezzo-soprano Sarah Mattox must be commended for taking proper note of the pp marking at the word “Himmel,” and she and Kristen Vogel Lindenmuth were fully equal to the expressive challenge of the finale (though I was surprised that the soprano didn’t join in one choral passage quite where Mahler told her to). But the choral-orchestral balance in the Klopstock setting was not really effective. Perhaps there were just not enough voices in the mix; it may seem paradoxical, but twice as many singers could have produced a more magical pianissimo, and therefore also more overwhelming fortissimo outbursts.
Still, the performance offered far more thrilling passages than shortcomings, and it must have been a powerfully inspiring experience for the young musicians to take part in so well-conducted an interpretation of so artistically ambitious a work. Pasternack will be missed.