Semyon Bychkov and the Royal Academy’s Young Musicians Scale the Mahlerian Heights

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Carrie-Ann Williams (soprano), Marvic Monreal (mezzo-soprano), Academy Symphony Chorus and Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 22.6.2017. (JPr)

Roma, Auditorium Parco della Musica 17 01 2015 Stagione di Musica Sinfonica Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Semyon Bychkov direttore ©Musacchio & Ianniello
Semyon Bychkov © Musacchio & Ianniello

Mahler – Symphony No.2, ‘Resurrection’

Seen and Heard has many new readers year on year and so others may forgive me repeating something they may have read before. Several years ago a performance of the ’Resurrection’ Symphony had an intriguing post-performance epilogue when a letter from the British Mahler Society was published in The Times newspaper. Their review (by Richard Morrison) of a London Symphony Orchestra concert 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 membership secretary of the Mahler Society, Neil Rhind MBE, who informed readers of The Times that ‘Indeed Gustav Mahler did specify a five-minute pause between the two blocks of his 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’. I am not precious at all about this, though it would have been useful to include something about this in the –  otherwise splendid – programme which had ‘SEMYON BYCHKOV conducts MAHLER’ emblazoned on its front cover. Indeed after the first movement, Maestro Bychkov sat on a stool for three minutes initially mopping perspiration but also subsequently allowing for the entry of the chorus and soloists. There was more than a little chatter from those in the audience new to Mahler – and this work in particular – who were wondering what was – or more accurately was not – going on.

Nevertheless, this whole performance is totally criticproof, involving an inspirational conductor giving of his time so freely to introduce a new generation of musicians and singers to this music. In his ‘Welcome’ in the programme Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music explained that for Bychkov, who has been Klemperer Chair of Conducting at the Academy since 2008, ‘there’s not a hint of high-handedness, compromise or wariness towards students performing the most complex works. He says, “Young people have to have opportunities like this to come into contact with the greatest pieces in the repertoire, and the most challenging ones. Unless they touch this music early, unless they start thinking about it early, they will have less time to live with it.” ’

For Bychkov the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony is about a question that confronts everyone: ‘Why are we here, and what comes after?’ Something difficult for me to get my head around at my advanced age, let alone for those for whom most of their years are still ahead of them. Bychkov’s opinion is that Mahler’s music ‘is something deeply existential and not just an assembly of notes that need to be mastered and played with a wonderful technical perfection (or as close to it as one can)’, as too many musicologists still seem to think.

Mahler generally abhorred giving his music a ‘programme’ … a case of the expressible attempting to explain what is clearly existential. However, we can consider the five movements as follows: the first movement 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 and third movements emphasise life’s trivialities and recall our hero’s past – highlighting the good times expressed in the Ländler dance rhythms of the second which are overtaken by a symphonic Scherzo in the third. This depicts the futility and ups-and-downs 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 a reconciliation is effected between Man and God and any despair at the pointlessness of existence is countered by the hope of salvation. The mezzo sings ‘I am from God and want to return to God!’ in ‘Urlicht’ (‘Primal Light’ – another Wunderhorn song) and is the voice of simple faith during the fourth movement. This is just a prelude to the finale when – in Mahler’s words – we 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 Trump, surge forward and gain in intensity towards the cataclysmic final chorale. Time definitely stands still and then ‘the last trump sounds again’, the soprano introduces warmth and humanity into the proceedings joining the chorus after their breathtaking ppp entry of ‘Aufersteh’n’ (‘Rise again’). Basically, this is Klopstock’s Resurrection chorale but only the first section of the text is Klopstock’s since Mahler added a number of lines of his own. It all ends with the utterance ‘I shall die, to live!’ which remains a chilling prediction of Mahler’s own fate as an artist!

What of the concert you ask? — well I can write nothing very negative on such an occasion and nor would I want to. It was a thoroughly creditable performance. The ‘Resurrection’ Symphony provides enough pitfall traps for any orchestra, let alone a student one. There is funeral music, military marches, waltz-like Ländler and klezmer interludes, brass fanfares conjuring heaven’s gates, all manner of other portentous outbursts and the Academy Symphony Orchestra overcame these admirably.  From the opening bars with the tremulous violins and violas, followed by the rough-edged declamations (which are so clearly inspired by the Prelude from Wagner’s Die Walküre) Maestro Bychkov clearly relished coaxing his well-drilled orchestra through this musical minefield. The tension built inexorably to the first of a number of shattering tutti climaxes, each quickly dissolving before Mahler cranks up the tension once again. It was these moments when the performance was at its best, and the quieter, more introspective and exposed ones left me in no doubt that this was an inexperienced orchestra – at least in Mahler. Nevertheless this could be nothing other than a life-affirming experience and I am sure Mahler would have approved.

Mezzo Marvic Monreal was a little too operatic for my liking in ‘Urlicht’ and – despite her resonant contralto-like tones – I missed the trance-like rapture the soloist should bring to the fourth movement. However, the Academy Symphony Chorus, again with so little of their lives lived, were magnificent and brought a very visceral frisson to that whispered word ‘Aufersteh’n’. They also made a notable contribution to Mahler’s concluding tsunami of sound. At this point I realised I was sitting next to their chorus master(?) Hilary Campbell who was living every word and change in dynamics with them. In these incandescent closing moments the pure-voiced soprano Carrie-Ann Williams shone in the little Mahler allots her.

To conclude, I will use Mahler’s own words once again, he wrote this about the final movement but I will apply it to the entire performance: ‘there is no judgment, no sinners, no just men [or women], no great and no small’. (I added in ‘women’ because they comprised almost two-thirds it seems of the Academy Symphony Orchestra.)

Jim Pritchard

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