Sunday, April 17, 2011 Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Richard Landau
I was transported back to Wednesday 30 November 1960, and to a Royal Festival Hall concert that was my first encounter with Mahler’s music, when a 30-year-old Lorin Maazel conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony with Maureen Forrester and Josephine Veasey. The BBC was aware of the concert’s importance since three days later the Third Programme (which in 1967 became Radio 3) put out a recording of it in place of scheduled items, an almost unheard of occurrence. What remains in the memory after half-a-century is a sense of having being bowled over by the work’s drama, scale, and awesomeness of vision. In 1960 Mahler was still regarded with widespread suspicion by critics and public, but we were on the cusp of a remarkable renaissance of interest in his music. In 1960 there many unsold tickets, whilst in 2011 the queue for returns was considerable.
Fifty years on, the start of the Second Symphony came across here as the thunderbolt it must have seemed to the audience that attended the work’s premiere, in 1895, although for them the shock (of the then new) must have been immeasurably greater. Maazel’s approach throughout the cataclysmic progress of the first movement was broad but forward-moving. The more lyrical sections were eminently graceful, but the lower strings, especially the dark-hued double basses, cast disturbingly dark shadows over proceedings, and the wonderfully secure brass section cut through climaxes with immense power. Towards the close, with Maazel eschewing mere ‘effects’, there was an air more of desperate anger than menace, which finally gave way to a sense of calm that bordered on resignation. The final pizzicatos were widely separated, conjuring up something that was both deeply questioning and full of mystery. This was interpretively daring, but highly successful.
The dance-like second movement offered playing of much charm, with the silkiest of violins and highly burnished cellos. The pizzicato section near the close was delivered in a really hushed manner, creating a mood of striking intimacy, and, as in the opening movement, the two final notes were broadly spaced, and to equally enigmatic effect. Drawn from the story of St Anthony preaching to the fishes, the scherzo, full of irony, bitterness, and dark humour, found the Philharmonia’s wind section rising with great virtuosity to every demand. Also notable was the bittersweet quality of the solo trumpet at the mid-way point – highlighting the irony which lies at the movement’s core – and also the commanding way in which the brass vehemently pierced through the texture. The transition into ‘Urlicht’, with the sound of the tam-tam yielding to the mezzo-soprano’s entry was beautifully managed, Michelle DeYoung’s delivery finely controlled and expressive, so that this plaintive entreaty for the soul to be allowed to return to God came over with just the right degree of innigkeit, and provided profound but short-lived consolation before the eruption of the devastating finale.
Mahler’s depiction of the Resurrection of all Mankind found Maazel not only welding the complex movement into a thoroughly convincing whole, but was remarkable, too, for its sheer passion and extraordinary sense of spontaneity. The orchestral playing, as throughout, was breathtaking, not least the off-stage brass which were judiciously positioned for dramatic effect. This movement, alternately uplifting and terrifying (the great march of the souls, for example) was thrillingly realised at every stage, and there were highly sensitive contributions from Sally Matthews – refined and inward – and again from DeYoung, the two voices blending together well. The BBC Symphony Chorus, from its hushed initial entry right through to the work’s glorious conclusion, was supremely accurate and flexible, constituting one of the many great pleasures of this performance. At the very close the playing of the violins reached a level of intensity bordering on the manic, lifting the final moments on to an altogether exalted plain and to a thoroughly deserved standing ovation.