Juraj Valčuha and Mahler Take the Three Choirs by Storm

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (4) Mahler. Katherine Broderick (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Juraj Valčuha (conductor), Worcester Cathedral, 28.7.2014 (JQ)

 Mahler – Symphony No 2 in C minor, ‘Resurection’

 In recent years the Three Choirs Festival has put on some very fine performances of Mahler symphonies led by guest conductors. In 2010 we had Jac van Steen, conducting a notable account of the Second Symphony at Gloucester (review) while three years ago Susanna Mälkki led the Third here in Worcester, also with considerable success (review). For this concert the Festival pulled off something of a coup by engaging the Slovakian conductor, Juraj Valčuha (b. 1976). Valčuha, a sometime pupil of the legendary Ilya Musin, is the chief conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, Torino (since 2009). He has been a guest conductor with many of the world’s leading orchestras in Europe and the USA. One of the top orchestras with which he appears regularly is the Philharmonia and I wonder if it was through their good offices that this Three Choirs engagement came about.

One of the advantages of attending a Three Choirs concert at any of the three cathedrals is that all the way down the nave are positioned close circuit TV screens. These relay to the audience close-up shots of the platform – and the camerawork is very good indeed – so that, even if one is seated well down the nave, it’s possible to enjoy the ambience and acoustic of the cathedral and at the same time have a view of the platform that would not be possible in most purpose-built concert halls. Thanks to the TV pictures I was able to observe Juraj Valčuha closely and his technique impressed me very much. His beat and gestures were clear and incisive and everything he did was relevant to the music – there was no grandstanding here. He paid very close attention to detail, for which I was very thankful, yet my overriding impression after this performance was of a conductor who very definitely had the Big Picture in mind at all times.

One of many facets of his performance that delighted me was the way in which he treated the structure of the symphony, which is cast in five movements, divided into two parts. Part I comprises the substantial first movement and Mahler directed that after it there should be a pause of at least five minutes. Few conductors observe this – rightly, in my view as it dissipates the tension. I think that tonight Valčuha might have gone on after just a short break but instead there was a pause for a couple of minutes while the orchestra re-tuned. In a way this was a pity but given the very warm temperature in the cathedral it was entirely understandable. The other four movements of the symphony constitute Part II and the last three should be played without a break, as happened here. But in addition Valčuha allowed only an imperceptible pause between the second and third movements – something that I believe Sir Simon Rattle also did in the concerts that produced his recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker (review). This meant that Valčuha effectively gave us the whole of Part II – over an hour of music – in one thrilling, unbroken sweep. It’s something I’ve not previously experienced in a live performance and I thought it worked brilliantly.

The huge first movement, essentially a funeral rite, was very impressive. I thought Valčuha’s pacing of the music was wholly convincing – as was the case throughout the symphony – and he had an unerring sense of the overall structure. That’s especially important when Mahler breaks off the progress of his march-like music for nostalgic slower interludes. These have to be given their expressive due but it’s vital that the music doesn’t slow down so much as to become indulgent or bogged down. Valčuha got these episodes just right – the first one, in particular, was suffused with gentle radiance – but they were reflective pauses along the way and never impeded the overall shape of the movement. The music derived from the main march material was imposingly handled. Though there was delicacy in the expressive interludes what registered most with me was the weight and drive of the Philharmonia’s playing. The depth of tone throughout the orchestra was impressive, all the more so because constraints of space meant that the orchestra could field fewer desks of strings than would have been the case in, say, the Royal Festival Hall. This was a gripping reading of the first movement.

I had the impression, relying wholly on memory, that perhaps Valčuha’s basic tempo for the second movement was a fraction swifter than I’ve heard from some conductors. If so, his speed worked very well indeed. He and the players imparted a nice, relaxed flow to the music. A genuine feel for and understanding of Mahler’s nostalgic vein and the way he uses portamento for expressive effect was readily apparent. This was a beautifully inflected intermezzo. Incidentally, having criticised the Philharmonia for sometimes playing too loud in the choral works we’ve heard so far this week I must hasten to record that their dynamics were beyond reproach throughout this performance.  The power was there to be turned on as and when required but there was a considerable amount of gossamer-light soft playing to admire also.

The third movement was finely pointed, bringing out Mahler’s sardonic side very well. Valčuha obtained some razor-sharp, acute playing and the wild passage that prefigures the finale was a superb – and disturbing – harbinger of things to come. The two soloists were seated in the front row of the choir meaning that Jennifer Johnston had to project ‘Urlicht’ right over the orchestra and down the nave. This proved no problem at all and her voice carried clearly and truly even when she was singing particularly softly. Miss Johnston sang from memory and delivered the music with sensitivity and expression, her tone lustrous and the words clear. This was a very fine performance.

With the soft close of ‘Urlicht’ still dying away Valčuha unleashed the vast finale. This was a simply superb account of Mahler’s musical Last Judgement. The offstage brass made a telling contribution, especially in the große Appell, where the spatial possibilities of the cathedral were tellingly utilised, Mahler’s distant Great Summons echoing around while the Philharmonia’s piccolo and flute players evoked the last flutterings of earthly life.  Earlier in the movement the incisive conducting and playing brought all the drama of the music vividly to life. The great percussion crescendi about 10 minutes into the movement were earthshattering – the graves opened graphically followed by the headlong march to the precipice.

The Festival Chorus, singing from memory, made a fine showing. Their very first entry, while hushed, had definition so one could tell what they were singing – a soft aural mush at this point won’t do – and from their gentle sounds the voice of Katherine Broderick rose sweetly. Later both soloists did very well in the ‘O glaube’ passage. Having demonstrated that quiet singing can be thrilling the chorus let rip in the closing minutes. The great moment of affirmation – ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du’ – was overwhelming, as it should be. At this point all the previously offstage brass players were ranged on the steps either side of the choir (I hope no Health and Safety inspectors were in the audience!) and from behind us the cathedral organ was thrown into the sonorous mix as Valčuha and his combined forces brought the symphony to a spectacular and moving conclusion. No wonder the audience acclaimed this performance.

This account of Mahler’s Second was a triumph.


John Quinn   

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