Uplifting Mahler Resurrection Symphony from the Czech Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler & Bruch: Sarah Fox (soprano), Jana Hrochová Wallingerová (mezzo), Josef Špaek (violin), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, CBSO Chorus / Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 24.4.2015 (GR).

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No 2 in C Minor, Resurrection
Max Bruch: Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor, Op 26

It was difficult not to compare this performance of the epic Mahler Symphony No 2, Resurrection, with another from the same venue back in 1998 from the CBSO and Sir Simon Rattle. But if any orchestra can aspire to rival the much acclaimed Rattle version it is the Czech Philharmonic, steeped as it is in the composer’s native central European tradition. On April 24th and under their veteran music director Jiří Bělohlávek the Prague-based ensemble made full use of the renowned acoustics of Symphony Hall, Birmingham, to deliver an unforgettable and enriching experience.

I have often praised the concert compilers of Birmingham’s THSH group for enterprising programme content, but this evening’s grouping was not their most inspired. Squeezing the Max Bruch Violin Concerto No 1 in before the monumental Mahler work was I thought a misplacement, a ‘filler’ that failed to gel. Added to this is that the concerto is a somewhat overexposed piece and its execution by soloist Josef Špaček was uninspiring; although virtuosic at times I thought it lacked emphasis. To say that the orchestra’s delivery of the exquisite Bruch melodies came across with more feeling than they did from the soloist, is surely getting it the wrong way round. I got the impression that the orchestra could not wait to get stuck into the Mahler, getting up to leave as Špaček came on for his third round of applause: an embarrassment I don’t think I’ve seen before!

Any symptoms of exasperation were immediately dispelled after the interval by the initial chord blast of the opening Allegro maestoso of the Mahler 2 – sit tight and listen it said. The double basses set the tone of the Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites) a lament that the oboe and clarinet soon endorsed. Both pacing and weight are vital in this first movement, a balance that I thoughtBělohlávek judged perfectly with his twenty minute duration; quicker than the average perhaps, but not so speedy that any deficiency in detail was apparent. The conductor’s beat moved the march along in deliberate and measured mode, Bělohlávek and his band at one, having done all the hard work in the rehearsal studio. The plaintive cries of the horns and harps spelt out Mahler’s question as a student of philosophy: ‘To what purpose have you lived?’ This heralded a gorgeous pastoral response from the cor anglais, a mood effectively echoed around the sections. Strident brass bursts and explosive percussion revisited the darker side of Mahler’s vision, highlighting the ‘sweet and sour’ constituents of Bělohlávek’s interpretation (possibly influenced by the Kubelik version, heard when he was nineteen). The enigma of life’s struggle emerged in the final bars – the occasion was becoming a memorable one.

Bělohlávek allowed a two-three minute break before the second movement, in keeping with Mahler’s wishes (although perhaps slightly more than he had planned in order to settle everyone down after the annoying ripple of applause that greeted the two soloists). The triple-time of the Andante moderato was overtly stated by the baton of the ex-BBC SO maestro, the initialLändler theme clearly stated without any need for flamboyancy of stick; it was given a delightful airiness by the sonorous strings led by Irena Herajnová. Creating a contrast to the unresolved tension of the previous Todtenfeier as Mahler intended, there were further idyllic glimpses into the past life of our hero. A wallowing contentment among the Czech Philharmonic players infectiously penetrated the auditorium, culminating in the fluffiest of finishes from the pizzicato strings and the two harps.

The importance of the string section was underlined in the third movement, In ruhig fliessender Bewegung (with quietly flowing movement) yet the carefree attitude of youth had developed one of uncertainty and disenchantment. Based upon the song ‘St Antony and the Fishes’ its poetic makeup was peppered with cymbal crashes, piccolo squeaks and woodwind palpitations, together with a heroic reminder to the Titan of Symphony No 1.

Jana Hrochová Wallingerová instilled the necessary prayer-like atmosphere to the ‘Urlicht’ (Primal Light) a song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn; her opening O Röschen Rot! (O little red rose) was simply and sincerely stated, yet conveying vulnerability as befits man returning to God. While the attentive auditorium held their breath for the first four lines, the solo was given some heavenly oboe accompaniment. Then as the pace quickened with Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg (There came I upon a broad path) it was the turn of leader Herajnová to add a luxurious lustre to the mezzo voice.

Judgement Day arrived with an almighty orchestral amalgam of sound for the fifth movement, In tempo des Scherzos – Langsam: Mysterioso. After the fade, expertly engineered by Bělohlávek, the first call from the off-stage horn was heard. A wonderful kaleidoscope of instrumental colour and texture from the orchestral ensemble followed, creating a feeling being in limbo. The dead were summoned with an amazing crescendo from the seven-strong percussion section, cut off with pinpoint precision. The return of the ‘March’ theme produced some fantastic ‘surround’ sound, superbly galvanised by Bělohlávek. The far-off brass, both left and right, plus fluidic tremolo from flute and piccolo introduced the hushed CBSO Chorus; initially seated as is their want, they delivered an intensity to Klopstock’s Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n (Rise again, yes, rise again) – a hair-tingling moment. Again the combined sound as Sarah Fox joined choir and orchestra was admirably balanced by Bělohlávek. As the drama of the resurrection was played out to Mahler’s additional text, Wallingerová’s O glaube, mein Herz, O glaube (O believe, my heart, O believe) was passionately rendered and Fox’s nicht bright and clear. Their two voices blended well for the duet O Schmerz (O pain) convincing in their conquest over death. Rising to sing Sterben werd’ ich (I shall die) – who could sing this mighty statement sitting down? – the full complement of performers glorified this ‘Resurrection’ in uplifting fashion.

Geoff Read