Tomáš Hanus and WNO Perform Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony Stupendously Well

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Rebecca Evans (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Community Chorus / Tomáš Hanus (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 2.10.2016. (PCG)

Mahler: Second ‘Resurrection’ Symphony

Whereas the performance last year by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Thomas Søndergård of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony played to a capacity audience, this concert (again in St David’s Hall) played to a fair sprinkling of empty seats. If patrons felt that they didn’t need to experience Mahler’s massive work again, they were mistaken, because the performance under consideration here took a somewhat different approach to the music. While Søndergård had taken a fairly literal line, closely following Mahler’s detailed instructions in the score and providing many insights as a consequence, here the new musical director of WNO Tomáš Hanus took a freer hand, including some unconventionally slow speeds (as in the horn calls as the dead rise from their graves in the final movement) and some careful adjustments of tempo and phrasing which – although they may not have been justified by the score – never detracted from the sense of drama which he brought to the music. Some of the percussion attacks bordered on the ferocious, and the carefully graduated climaxes brought a gathering sense of power to the progress of the symphonic structure.

While Søndergård and the BBC last year presented the relatively substantial BBC National Chorus of Wales, Hanus here confined himself to a comparatively smaller body consisting of the WNO’s professional body of singers plus the amateur WNO community chorus. They produced a fine well-honed and well-focused sound, although the final bars could ideally have done with a larger number of performers; and it is ironic that a larger body of singers actually find it easier to sing really quietly at their first entry. Here the sound was just a little too ‘present’ to the ear following the rapt delivery of the Grosser Appel which precedes it. The orchestra too was expanded (some students recruited from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama among the strings) and the massed forces clearly responded with fervour to Hanus’s approach to the score. It was pleasing to note, too, that Hanus divided his violins stereophonically across the stage, which pays real dividends throughout and especially in the more delicate passages of the second movement (I complained last year about Søndergård’s failure to do this). I was disappointed however that WNO did not employ their synthesised bells which the company acquired for Parsifal in the 1980s (they can be heard on the Goodall recording), which would have been more successful in context than the large tubular bells (at least an octave too high) we heard here.

One point of similarity with the BBC performance was the placing of the two vocal soloists, here (as last year) placed towards the back of the violins. This did not inconvenience the firm-voiced Karen Cargill in her Urlicht song with its delicate orchestral accompaniment, but it did lead to problems of balance during the duet with Rebecca Evans in the final movement where both the voices tended to submerge beneath the seething orchestration going on around them. Mahler’s practice in performance was either to place the singers at the front of the stage (which obviates many of the balance problems) or in the front row of the chorus where they are raised above the orchestral sound in an operatic perspective (which enables the soprano solo to emerge imperceptibly from the chorus around her). I do wish also that conductors would convince their soprano soloists to sing with the choir from their very first entry, as Mahler indicates in the score, which allows the solo voice to emerge naturally towards the end of the passage without any sudden increase in volume; but this is almost never done.

However, the efforts of the singers were to a considerable degree abnegated by the heinous failure of the WNO to provide the audience with translations that would have enabled them to know what the singers were singing about. The programme notes by Hedd Thomas were provided in both English and Welsh, but provided the text of Urlicht in German only with no translation, and no texts at all for the choral passages setting Klopstock’s Ode as amended by Mahler. This is not the first occasion on which I have had occasion to reprimand WNO for their failure to provide such information, which is surely essential for audiences unfamiliar with the symphony – and there must always be some such on any occasion. How are such people supposed to fully appreciate the music when they are denied any guidance as to what it is about? It is not as if the text and translation would have taken up much room in the programme – a page or two at most.

That grumble aside, this was a stupendously good performance of overwhelming music and a magnificent harbinger of what we may expect from Tomáš Hanus’s tenure at Welsh National Opera. The performers rightly received a prolonged standing ovation.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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