Quatre instants [UK premiere of orchestral version] Mahler
Symphony No.2 in C minor (Resurrection)
Christine Brewer (soprano)
Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Friday, October 01, 2004 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Another season, another opening the BBC Symphony Orchestra's 2004/5 schedule getting underway with this unlikely but effective coupling such as Jukka-Pekka Saraste has brought off numerous times during his period as Principal Guest Conductor.
In one sense, the pairing was well merited, as at least in its orchestral rendering Kaija Saariaho's song-cycle on texts by Amin Maalouf concerning longing and wish-fulfilment has a demonstrably Mahlerian sensibility. Musically, the songs continue the line of translucently-scored if emotionally-enervated works that the composer has settled into in the wake of her opera L'amour de loin; one evincing a debt to the Debussy-Dutilleux axis of French music in its restrained sensuality, while suggesting that the intense interplay of instrumental and electronic means with which Saariaho was synonymous a decade ago has been left firmly behind. The cycle was written with the voice of Karita Mattila in mind, but Christine Brewer's assumption seemed scarcely less imposing she and Saraste creating a frisson of anticipation in the closing number, Résonances, where elements from the previous three settings are brought into ambivalent accord.
From here to resurrection is not far when Mahler's Second Symphony covers the ground from death to rebirth so thoroughly. There were some good things in this performance. The Allegro maestoso was shaped so that Mahler's defiant refashioning of sonata-form precepts was vividly projected, while not excluding those moments of tenderness or repose which throw the prevailing anguish into relief. The Andante moderato was eased through without undue haste, and if the scherzo could have done with a degree more malevolence, the bittersweet nostalgia of the trio was unerringly caught.
Petra Lang seemed not entirely at ease with the protestations of faith in the brief Urlicht, but brought urgent expression to her contribution in the finale's Resurrection Ode, Mahler setting an adaptation of Friedrich Klopstock. Brewer's restraint here was an ideal complement, and the BBC Symphony Chorus tried hard to project Mahler's blazing intimations of immortality in the constrained-sounding Barbican acoustic. The offstage brass panoply came over with tangible immediacy, and if Saraste's vision of judgement was merely engaging rather than breathtaking, that no doubt reflects on how the music conveys itself to us today.
Not an incandescent performance, then, but one which saw the work as an intelligible whole, and which, moreover, clearly delighted delegates from the British Arts Festivals and European Festivals Associations whose presence helped launch the BBCSO's new season to a commendably full house.