An Excellent and Engrossing Account of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Ailish Tynan (soprano), Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 22.3.2016. (JPr)

Mahler: Symphony No. 2, ‘Resurrection’

‘It’s not just a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that!’ Don’t you think that should have been said by Woody Allen? Well it wasn’t and it is actually about football. However, it concisely sums up Mahler’s great treatise on the meaning of human existence which is his Second Symphony, ‘Resurrection’, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on the cusp of Easter.

Over a decade ago a performance of the Second Symphony by the London Symphony Orchestra in London had an intriguing post-performance epilogue when the British Mahler Society made its presence felt in the Letters page of The Times. Richard Morrison’s review had commented that after the first movement the conductor had ‘left the platform, the orchestra retuned, the audience chattered, and far too long passed before he returned with the soloists’. It was the GMS UK’s membership secretary at the time, Neil Rhind MBE, who subsequently informed readers of The Times that ‘Indeed Gustav Mahler did specify a five-minute pause between the two blocks of his “Resurrection” Symphony. He also specified that the audience should keep quiet and that there should be no unnecessary noise or disturbance to interrupt solemn contemplation. The late Sir John Barbirolli shushed both chatterers and those who attempted to applaud the entrance of the soloists during the pause’.

Is this work meant to be a quasi – or possibly real – religious experience? The answer is a definite no. However, sometimes it can get mighty close to one, such as when Arnold Schoenberg wrote: ‘The first time I heard Mahler’s Second Symphony I was seized, especially in certain passages, with an excitement which expressed itself even physically, in the violent throbbing of my heart. And I was overwhelmed, completely overwhelmed’. At the Royal Albert Hall although I was not ‘completely overwhelmed’ it was undoubtedly one of the best and most engrossing performances of the Second Symphony at which I have been present.

Mahler generally, I believe, hated giving his music a ‘programme’ … a case of the expressible attempting to explain the existential … but it is possible to consider the five movements as follows. The first (Allegro maestoso) contains music that is dominated by a funeral march as our ‘hero’ (Mahler himself since he was the very same ‘hero’ of his own 1888 First Symphony) is taken to his grave and his life – all he wished for himself and planned for – is re-evaluated. The second (Andante moderato) and third emphasises life’s trivialities and bring us reminiscences from our hero’s past – highlighting the good times expressed in the Ländler dance rhythms of the second that are overtaken by a symphonic Scherzo in the third to depict the futility and roller-coaster nature of life in a grotesque, cynical waltz based on musical material from the Wunderhorn song ‘St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes’. In the closing two movements there is a reconciliation effected between Man and God so that any despair at the pointlessness of existence is countered by the hope of salvation. ‘I am from God, and will return to God!’ begins with the entry of the simple ‘chorale’, ‘Urlicht’ (‘Primeval Light’ – another Wunderhorn song), which the solo mezzo-soprano sings as a voice of simple faith, ushering in the fourth movement. This is just a moment of music drama that acts as a prelude to the finale.

We have come at last to the Final Judgement – ‘The earth quakes, graves burst open, the dead arise’. Distant brass, ominous drum rolls, melodramatic penultimate and Last Trumps; surge forward and gain in intensity towards the cataclysmic final chorale. Time definitely seems to stand still and then ‘the last trump sounds again’, the soprano introduces warmth and humanity into the proceeding joining the chorus after their breathtaking ppp entry of ‘Aufersteh’n’ (‘Rise again’). There is the mezzo-soprano’s final solo (‘O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube’ – ‘O believe, my heart, o believe!’) and then soloists and chorus unite as the symphony is brought to a gloriously joyful and valedictory conclusion. This is basically just Klopstock’s Resurrection chorale but Mahler added a few lines of his own and it all ends with ‘I shall die in order to live!’ which was a chilling prediction of Mahler’s own fate as an artist! The final overwhelming ‘message’ is that no matter who your ‘God’ may be, no one should fear his or her own ‘Day of Judgement’ to come.

What of the concert you may ask? Well I attend the BBC Proms regularly and few orchestras then have ever coped so well with the difficult acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall. Not only that, I have rarely heard a better orchestra than the Royal Philharmonic was on this night. The very youthful looking Vasily Petrenko conducted with ease, naturalness and confidence and he was not afraid to push near to their limits Mahler’s Late-Romantic introspection, angst, doubt, sentimentality and theatricality. There were no sudden undue gear changes of tempo and even when playing at their slowest there was never a sense of too much analysis or ponderousness. The concluding Judgement Day may be pure theatre, but good readings like this do not make the ‘Resurrection’ inevitable and so it must be very exciting for anyone coming new to this symphony and not realising the direction the music was taking them.

From the hair-raising opening funeral march and through the next 90 minutes the orchestra – lower strings and brass especially – never made an ugly sound unless Mahler asks for it. As the performance took shape, however, the players gave Petrenko everything he wanted, whether it was visceral power or shimmering tone. The deceptively gossamer-like and very sunny second movement hardly touched the ground. The solo oboe performed all evening with unfailing purity and sensitivity. In the march to resurrected glory that is the final movement, thrilling contributions came from offstage horns, trumpets and drums, as they flung out their fateful summonses from high up in the Gallery or from backstage. At such times Petrenko made this ‘Resurrection’ seem not so much a symphony as an immersive acoustical and mystical experience. The listener, helpless to resist, was borne along in this inexorable transcendence. He was aided and abetted not only by the admirable Philharmonia Chorus but with the contributions from Alice Coote’s rich, full-bodied, mezzo – she brought great dramatic imagination to the text – and Ailish Tynan’s bright-toned soprano. Both voices were large enough to emerge from the orchestra and carry over the well-filled platform into the auditorium.

So what about Mahler’s request for that five-minute pause for contemplation between the first and second movements? Vasily Petrenko barely halted just long enough to allow latecomers to be seated, about two minutes, before plunging ahead. On this occasion it didn’t matter in the slightest mainly because the audience – one of the quietest I have ever heard – seemed gripped from the start and willing the music to carry on.

Jim Pritchard

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