Guildhall Symphony Orchestra/James Gaffigan – Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony

Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)

Janice Watson (soprano) & Sarah Pring (mezzo-soprano)

Guildhall Symphony Chorus & Orchestra
James Gaffigan

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 12 February, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

James Gaffigan. Photograph: Margaretta K. MitchellMahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony was the fruit of a seven-year gestation; or, to put it another way, roughly a third of the life-span to date of each member of Guildhall School’s musical battalions. It’s almost a quarter of the conductor’s life too: James Gaffigan may be the right side of 30, but not by much. The New Yorker’s tyro days are long gone, though, and his rise to prominence brought him to Glyndebourne last summer where he shared duties with the late Sir Charles Mackerras on “Così fan tutte”. But it’s another name that springs to mind when watching his elegant, precise podium technique: that of his fellow-countryman Michael Tilson Thomas. No surprise, then, to learn that Gaffigan has worked as MTT’s assistant with the San Francisco Symphony.

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.

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