Period Instruments Provide a Revelatory Experience in Mahler

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Adriana Kučerová (soprano); Sarah Connolly (mezzo); Philharmonia Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Vladimir Jurowski. Royal Festival Hall, London, 12.4.2016. (CC)Mahler, Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”

Around five years ago, the OAE gave a performance of Mahler’s “Totenfeier” movement; they also gave his First Symphony some 15 years ago. But there is no precedent in their archives of a historcally informed performance of the entire edifice that is the Second Symphony. When the “authentic” lobby first appeared, this might well have been the stuff of dreams (or jokes, depending on one’s slant). Yet here it is, with all the justification in the world: the sounds are very different, and the resulting textures can be like hearing the music with a layer of lacquer taken off. The gut strings lack the body and heft of their more modern counterparts, but their febrile intensity compensates for any lack of warmth, at least in the hands of the OAE’s players.

The horn is a vital part of Mahler’s writing, here and elsewhere. Playing on valved Viennese horns of the type that would have been known to Mahler in the 1890’s, the sound is more raw. Roger Montgomery’s Wiener Pumpenhorn (great word), for instance, was made in 1896, with an F-crook and double piston valves. The sound is more akin to that of a natural horn, and the attack on notes (somewhat but not entirely dependent upon the player) tends to be more defined, some might posit clunky, than on modern compensating F/B flat doubles. Allied to that is an added sense of danger, which was echoed in the remaining brass also, and there were some mishaps on the night – some more audible than others, some you’d probably have to be a brass player to notice, some you’d have to be across the Thames not to hear. Wind instruments had added pungency: Mahler’s entreaty “Schalltrichter auf!” (most often linked to the horns’ “bells up”, but there in the woodwind parts also) made all the difference to the projection of lines, not to mention underlining the added aural acidity. Timpani regularly shot sound-bullets across the auditorium. The results were sometimes startling – one passage revealed a seeming debt to Berlioz that has passed me by for the last 35 years or so I have been familiar with this score.

In keeping with the “authentic” feel, a separate group of instruments were used, behind the strings and to the conductor’s right, to intersperse Sarah Connolly’s first statements in “Urlicht” with well-balanced chorale statements. The various off-stage effects encompassed what felt like the entire auditorium, with some brass joining the chorus for the concluding peroration.

All of which would be useless if there wasn’t a decent conductor holding it all together. Jurowski’s Mahler doesn’t hang about (one might claim that chimes with the historicist perspective but in my experience he’s never been one to dawdle, whatever the repertoire). Yet he knows exactly what he wants, and has the technique to get it – his “Luftpausen” bore eloquent testament to that, as did the tightly controlled rubato. The first movement held many experiences with Mahler’s orchestration but also a feeling that it lost at least some of its monumentalism, and the crushing fortissimi might have splattered us, the audience, that much quicker against the walls of the Festival Hall. However, there remained a feeling that this performance was indeed moving towards something of vast import.

The second movement could perhaps have been more grazioso, and the ear had to adjust mightily quickly to the wiry cellos for their melodic flowerings. A nice touch was that Jurowski didn’t seem to conduct the timpani opening to the third movement, just giving the player the nod (two sets of timpani involved here, one on either side of the woodwind line); Katherine Spencer’s slip-sliding, almost jazzy clarinet contributions in this movement were a delight. But it was the cataclysmic, nightmarish (or should that be “nightmarisch”?) Urschrei that really dug deep into Mahler’s psyche.

By far the finer of the two vocal soloists was the well-loved Sarah Connolly. Both soloists were placed directly in front of the organ, surrounded on both sides therefore by chorus members. Connolly’s velvety, heart-felt, and heart-rending “Urlicht” was superb, nowhere more so than at “Da kam ein Engelein”, where her voice was entwined in an exquisitely crafted web of sound.

There’s no denying that original instruments can play really loudly when they want to: the opening of the finale made that perfectly clear, as did the famous percussion crescendo later; also there was a piercing trumpet cry, which was more of a scream. The off-stage horns at the opening appeared to be backstage behind the choir and therefore nicely distanced. It became increasingly difficult not to notice the fidgeting and nervousness of the soprano soloist, Adriana Kučerová, whose performance did not match up to the excellence her CV in the programme implied. While she and Connolly worked well when they sang together, Kučerová’s diction seemed compromised and neither did she seem really inside the piece.

And the chorus? It remained seated for the opening, quiet “Aufersteh’n” (but not as in some performances I have encountered, near-inaudible), only rising at, appropriately one might claim, the climactic “Aufersteh’n”. It was a pity that first entrance actually wasn’t that hypnotic, as a level of intensity up and it might have kept the coughers at bay. But the radiant climax was a fitting crown to this most stimulating performance.

The OAE’s Principal Horn Roger Montgomery can be heard talking about Mahler’s Second and the horn’s place therein here (available for a limited amount of time only). There is also a three and a half minute introduction, with more wit from Montgomery (“It’s easy to think Mahler 2 is being about horns. Which it is”) at the OAE’s website. He demonstrates the Vienna horn against a Czech rotary horn, contemporary also to the work.

One can’t help but wonder what next for the OAE …

Colin Clarke