Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)
Janice Watson (soprano) & Sarah Pring (mezzo-soprano)
Guildhall Symphony Chorus & Orchestra
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: 12 February, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Gaffigan’s first test was to balance his 130-strong orchestra (142 with offstage musicians) within the unforgiving Barbican Hall acoustic. He succeeded remarkably well, aided by a cunning decision to place the viola section downstage of the cellos, and throughout the symphony’s first hour all was sweet equilibrium. The youthful players would probably have relished the chance to razzle-dazzle with this music, but Gaffigan was having none of it: his resolutely ‘resurrectionist’ view of the symphony led him to keep a tight rein on sentimental self-indulgence all the way through to the major-key eruption in the finale that heralds the march of the awakening dead. This restraint was a mixed blessing – the opening movement was almost bland in places while the second and third felt curiously homogeneous – but Gaffigan’s insistence on contained ardour did ensure that when he unleashed the symphony’s last 20 minutes they were as emotionally shattering as they were dramatically compelling.
Sarah Pring is a fine operatic mezzo, but she was ill-at-ease with Mahler’s poetic mysticism and her over-emphatic entry at the start of ‘Urlicht’ briefly broke the music’s spell. Both she and Janice Watson were overwhelmed by orchestral decibels in the closing pages, understandably enough with such massive forces, and Watson’s soaring moments at “Der Herr der Ernte geht und sammelt Garben” barely registered. The members of the splendid Guildhall Chorus (well drilled by David Vinden) fared rather better, although these singers too were outgunned by the instrumentalists and could create little magic with their sustained pianissimos.
This was the orchestra’s evening and it showed an extraordinary exhibition of skill. Technical virtuosity in student ensembles is something we almost take for granted nowadays, but the artistic sensitivity and musical consonance displayed by each section were outstanding. Sure, there were occasional fluffs and isolated problems with intonation, but these were inconsequential in the context of such collective talent.