Mahler and the Bernstein Project [Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony/Marin Alsop]
Sunday, May 09, 2010 Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Peter Reed
People still speak in reverential terms of Marin Alsop’s revelatory Mahler 2 at the Lighthouse in Poole during her much-praised tenure of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. She, the symphony and vastly expanded forces were back to make the emphatic point that Mahler was central to Leonard Bernstein’s musical world. This concert was one of the high points of the Southbank Centre’s Bernstein Project, and it may well turn out to be a homage that eclipses the impact of another of Marin Alsop’s calling cards, Bernstein’s “Mass”, which rounds the Project off in July.
Bernstein’s Mahler could be very strong meat – a fusion of profound musical self-identification, an acute awareness of Mahler’s soundworld and a prophetic awareness of Mahler’s crucial importance to 20th-century music, all filtered through Bernstein’s instinctive, emotional response. His Mahler performances went to extremes of expression. Sometimes, it just seemed too subjective, but you could never not listen. Bernstein’s Mahler legacy alone is enough to justify his legendary status, and Marin Alsop’s hero-worshipping.
I didn’t hear the Poole performance, and it would have been fascinating to know whether she adopted a similar approach to tempos as she did this time round, possibly an echo of Bernstein’s influence. Notably in the first movement, before the first repeat of the opening, she pushed the dreamy ‘Wunderhorn’ idyll – an aural land of lost content – too hurriedly, when urgency is not the point. Similarly, I quarrelled with the brisk speed with which the dead rose in the finale. This didn’t mar the overall performance, but you did wonder what point she was making by rushing her fences in this way.
In all other respects, she had the measure of the effects Mahler was aiming for, especially in the way the retreats from the tragedy of the first movement come supplied with a veil of distant regret, in a reading that in general emphasised the music’s heroism. She handled another of the music’s big pressure-points – where the third movement moves into unexplored territory before dissolving into the mystery of ‘Urlicht’ – with a supreme understanding that this is the symphony’s pivotal structural and spiritual moment.
The finale’s wide-open spaces expanded with a precise and generous sense of deliberation – Alsop’s control and vision were masterly here – but even this didn’t prepare me for the incredible entry of the chorus, not only for the aural marvel of one of the plumpest pianissimos I have ever heard – a real wall of sound – but also for the visual spectacle of the colossal choir erupting from the front stalls, the side annexes, the boxes either side of the auditorium, not to mention as part of the chorus conventionally placed behind the orchestra, headed by soprano Katherine Broderick and Karen Cargill, her highly charged mezzo as thrilling as ever. It was Mahler as sight-and-sound installation, a 500-strong chorus (you don‘t feel small-changed with a choir of 100 or so) exalting us to get resurrected. Grandiose and over-the-top, certainly; thrilling definitely. Bernstein would have loved it.