Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)
Francesco Piemontesi (piano)
Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano) & Chen Reiss (soprano)
Guildhall Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 1 December, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Time was when a Mahler symphony was a novelty and the longer ones tended to wholly occupy a concert. In many ways Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony is so complete – from ‘funeral rites’ to ‘rebirth’ – that it needs nothing with it. If Schumann’s evergreen Piano Concerto wasn’t an obvious companion, its absence would have meant losing a rather special performance.
From his first entry Francesco Piemontesi proved himself a poet at the piano and displayed a close rapport with Jiří Bělohlávek. Mixing virility and sensitivity to bewitching effect, Piemontesi seduced with his range of touch, dynamics and colours. His phrasing was unfailingly shapely, and he also dialogued (and listened) meaningfully with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, clarinettist Richard Hosford a particularly eloquent responder, while the strings’ variety of timbre and bowing-weight was a constant pleasure. The slow movement was given with beguiling simplicity, the cellos blooming and tender, and the finale was a quest without losing poise. Recorded for Naïve, to add to the already studio-documented Dvořák Piano Concerto, this meticulous yet spontaneous account, alive to Schumann’s introspections and emotional overspills, was absorbing, and its release on CD is keenly anticipated.
Bělohlávek here returned to the BBCSO as Conductor Laureate (Sakari Oramo becomes the new Chief Conductor with the First Night of next year’s Proms). Clearly much time had also been spent preparing Mahler’s vast canvas. The first movement was both urgent and pall-bearing, lamenting reflections vying with seismic upheavals, Bělohlávek digging beneath the notes, the diversity of the music given full vent without losing direction; this was the “serious and solemn expression” that Mahler requests, the pacing broad, the mood volatile: the tolling of horns and harps was vivid, the bass drum rolls carried subterranean menace, the strings sighed with resignation, and the full orchestra erupted with disturbing if focussed force.
Bělohlávek’s spacious but never sagging approach had gripped the attention over 25 minutes. A shame, then, that the two vocal soloists now entered rather precipitately to take their places (this and welcoming applause caused tension to quickly dissipate) and the conductor might have allowed more time before progressing the symphony; Mahler requests a five-minute pause. Furthermore, and surprisingly, Bělohlávek did not sport the antiphonal violins that Mahler wrote for; he can be fickle with this arrangement, but invariably uses it for Mahler (and Bruckner).
As beautifully played and observed as it was, the Ländler second-movement was on the stately side and rather too sophisticated, although the relaxed tempo did make room for glowering contrasts. Bělohlávek might usefully have continued directly into the next movement – not marked but effective – but judged the scherzo-like tempo to perfection to paint St Anthony addressing the fishes (the composer borrowing from his Des Knaben Wunderhorn); the flare-ups were well calibrated and the trumpets were particularly sexy (there is no other word!) in the radiant ‘trio’ section. There follows ‘Urlicht’ (Primeval Light), also on loan from the Wunderhorn collection; the brass chorales were gravely intoned, and if Katarina Karnéus was initially rather stoical, she lightened and widened her palette as the setting continued, taking in poignant contributions from cor anglais and violin.
It was only a matter of a few seconds, but Bělohlávek left it a conspicuous while before crashing into the huge finale. The distance of the horns and, later, the brass and percussion band, was well-judged, but having them on the same level (positioned in the stage-right wings) as the rest of the orchestra was perhaps not so solicitous. Nevertheless, Bělohlávek was a master of Mahler’s grand design, the deliberate tempo for the march spot-on and, after a bruising climax, the intertwining of piccolo and flute suggested salvation was close. The “principal-study singers” forming the Guildhall Symphony Chorus (Guildhall School of Music & Drama) had memorised their Klopstock contribution and were magnificent, simmering in pianissimos and youthfully vibrant in proclaiming a new dawn, their ear-catching earthy sonority distinctively churchy. Chen Reiss also made quite an impression, voluptuous and with some attractive attitude (if she’s not already, she could be a great Carmen). Come the dark-cloud-bursting conclusion, Bělohlávek inspired all his musicians to a joyous uprising. Those few doubts that had arisen during 92 minutes were now banished in elevating fashion.