PROM 35: Mariss Jansons Brings Out Mahler’s Symphonic Consistency

Mariss Jansons conducts the BRSO (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

United KingdomUnited Kingdom PROM 35: Mahler. Genia Kühmeier (soprano), Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano), WDR Radio Choir, Bavarian Radio Chorus, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 9.8.2013. (GDn)

Mahler: Symphony No. 2, ‘Resurrection’

Mariss Jansons can always be relied on to give a distinctive performance, and that’s exactly what the Resurrection Symphony got tonight. Mahler isn’t central to Jansons’ repertoire, he’s more closely associated with the later generations, Strauss and Shostakovich, who took Mahler’s soundworld and refined it to create music of equal power but greater sophistication. We more often hear Mahler presented by younger and more impetuous conductors, who vie with each other to conjure more intensity, bigger shocks and greater contrasts. Jansons is not in that business; he’s more interested in balance, coherency and continuity. The Resurrection Symphony, as it turns out, appreciates this sort of treatment, which makes everything in it sound narrative and interconnected. Some of Mahler’s radicalism is lost in the process, but the result is a work that sounds more symphonic in every sense.

Rather than push the cellos and basses to the limit of their capabilities in the opening, Jansons instead took a steady pace, and the payoff was a remarkable unity of ensemble in these opening phrases. Even if he doesn’t take the tempi to extremes, he still insists on the full dynamic contrasts that Mahler writes into the score, and that maintains the drama at this slower pace. As the first movement progressed, it became clear that Jansons was determined to find continuity between each successive passage. All the phrases were elegantly shaped, and the tempos were always fluid, but there were no sudden gear changes, and every new idea was presented as if it were the inevitable consequence of what we had just heard. In general, the strings had the upper hand over the winds and percussion, and there was some surprisingly scrappy playing at times from the back of the stage. But the unity of intent mattered more, and it was clear throughout that every player and singer was on Jansons’ interpretive wavelength.

The sophistication of Jansons’ reading was most evident in the second and third movements. He drew a weighty tone from the strings at the start of the second, too weighty really, and too urbane – there was never any suggestion of a rustic dance here. The passage where the strings play their instruments like guitars was gamely done though, and was one of the many episodes here that showed Jansons’ lighter side. The third movement acted as a transition towards the finale, bringing the first hints of the violence that would be unleashed later on. The restraint early on impressively contrasted with the wilder climaxes towards the end of the movement, the slight inaccuracies in the woodwind playing almost seemed deliberate (were they?) in some of these outbursts, and particularly effective were the irregular piccolo trills, scribbled crudely across the top of the tuttis.

Urlicht introduced mezzo Gerhild Romberger, an ideal singer for the part. Her voice is throaty and full of dark colours, but her pronunciation is impeccable, enabling her to transmit each syllable clearly across the hall. The chorale that answers her at the start of the movement was played by the off-stage band, a curious diversion from the score, but not an overly distracting one.

From the start of the finale it was clear that this was what Jansons had been building up to, and his restraint, especially in the second and third movements, was now revealed to be part of a scheme for delineating the work’s architecture. All of the ‘death’ music was presented with searing intensity, and with some excellent playing – finally – especially from the brass. The sense of continuity and narrative was still very much to the fore, though, and Jansons made every effort to keep a sense of flow going in each transition and tempo shift. He was going against the spirit of the music really, as most of it here is about shocks, sudden changes of mood and sudden revelations. Fortunately, when we got to the Resurrection proper, with the entry of the choir, Mahler finally got on to Jansons’ wavelength. The WDR and BRSO choruses sang wonderfully, and those pianissimo entries were perfectly handled, with Jansons holding the ensemble in the palm of his hand; the choir only breathed when he let them, and the audience too. Soprano Genia Kühmeier is not the equal of Romberger, but her tone is purer and less complex, making it a good complement in their brief duets towards the end.

The finale was impressive, particularly for the tonal control that the orchestra was able to maintain, even at the very loudest dynamics. Like many German ensembles, the BRSO plays to some arcane pitch standard (443 Hz probably), which prevented them from using the resolutely 440 Albert Hall organ. The electric one they brought along did the job, but it wasn’t the same. More of a disappointment in these closing passages was the acoustic, which swallowed up most of the sound, deflating what would no doubt have otherwise been an overwhelming experience.

But such is the way of the Proms, and even in its problematic venue, the season is to be congratulated for bringing us this and so many other world class performances. Jansons’ Mahler, at least on this hearing, isn’t the visceral and immediate musical experience that you can expect from Salonen say, or Dudamel, or even Jonathan Nott. It’s more considered and more refined. Jansons brings out dimensions of the music that his younger colleagues overlook, not least its innate sense of symphonic coherency. Most just take that for granted, but Jansons is intent on showing us exactly how this music works.

Gavin Dixon