United Kingdom Mahler: Elizabeth Watts (soprano); Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano); London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 1.11.2014 (CC)
Mahler – Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection”
Concerts with last-minute stand-ins can be edge-of-the-seat, sometimes career-defining moments. That was not the case here, alas, for Andrés Orozco-Estrada, replacing Jaap van Zweden. The young, Colombian-born Orozco-Estrada is set to become Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic as of September 2015.
There was a time – around the 1980s – when performances of Mahler’s Second in and around London seemed to be everywhere. Not so any more: the fad has passed, it would seem, and yet this stand-alone performance (not even the Berio Sinfonia to keep it company) managed to generate a fair audience. Mahler’s Second, of course, remains a huge achievement, the journey to the final setting of Klopstock as harrowing as one remembers.
The demands on the conductor are huge, and any failings will be – and were – laid bare in the extensive first movement. First things first, though: Orozco-Estrada is a sniffer. Give him a firm upbeat to deliver, and there goes the clearing of the airways. That he was particularly loud in this respect in the earlier bars of the piece was particularly unfortunate – it was very clear from mid-way up the stalls; perhaps it didn’t carry further back – and it was to return in the middle movements, particularly the third. Nasal issues aside, Orozco-Estrada really did not seem to have a firm grasp on the first movement, with Mahler’s dramatic outbursts failing to make their full emotional impact. Rawness was missing, perhaps because there was a careful streak in evidence. Actually, the second movement was the most successful, high on charm; and while the use of timpani as audience-silencer was impressive and brought a smile at the outset of the third movement, parts of that movement sounded rushed.
The shame was that there was so much excellence amongst the individual instrumental contributions (perhaps the first horn in particular). If only the whole had been more Mahlerisch, more inside this dark world. Tellingly, Orozco-Estrada only left a short break between the first and second movements – Mahler stipulated more – but in context it was fine; it hardly felt as if one was emotionally drained after the first movement, anyway.
The soloists entered after the second movement, and were placed behind the first violins at the side of the stage. A surprising idea, but one which worked well. In fact all of Mahler’s experiments with sound placement were well thought-through here; the off-stage brass were placed in a room behind the choir. Alice Coote was fabulous in ‘Urlicht’, and her voice, together with that of Elizabeth Watts were a fine team in the finale, with Watts’ soprano radiant against Coote’s burnished tone. The choir, too,was on fine form, singing from memory and bestriding the dynamic extremes with expertise. Yet the finale is another massive edifice, and one for which Orozco-Estrada was not particularly equipped. Again the music felt undervalued, its contrasts underplayed. The fast speed for the arrival of the final outburst of “Auferstehen” was by this stage unsurprising, and robbed one of music’s great moments of its power.
There is no denying that there was much to enjoy along the way, then, but the underwhelming impression generated does not bode particularly well for Orozco-Estrada’s upcoming tenure with the LPO.