Mahler: The Symphonies in Sequence – Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim & Boulez in New York [Symphony No.2 Resurrection/Boulez]

Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)

Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano) & Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)

Westminster Symphonic Choir

Staatskapelle Berlin
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 7 May, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Less than a minute into the concert, I was asking myself if this was indeed the same orchestra I had heard the previous night.

Pierre Boulez24 hours earlier, Staatskapelle Berlin, under Daniel Barenboim’s direction, had given a disjointed and shockingly messy performance of Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” and Symphony No.1. Now, with Pierre Boulez on the podium, the musicians were fully attuned the brooding, assertive and sometimes furious core of the funeral-march theme that opens Symphony No.2 (Resurrection). There was much to like in the playing of this opening movement – particularly its second section, with its rising motif in the violins that contrasts strongly with the ominous march music, but came into the sort of slow bloom one seldom hears. The ‘false coda’ that leads into the recapitulation, with its massive culmination of march rhythms, was played with little slacking of tempo and took on the character of a ‘beginning of the end’ rather than the dead stop one encounters too often. By the end of the movement, the strong contrast between the rhythmically funereal themes and the poignant, almost vocal melodies had set the stage for the many contrasts to come.

The placid Andante moderato movement was brimming with elegant, gentle playing from the strings and plenty of pungent atmosphere from the winds, their music came across as genuine intrusions on the leisurely and pastoral music. The countermelody in the cellos that accompanies the first return of the main tune in this movement was beautifully projected, with particularly unified portamento that accentuated its almost vocal nature.

Boulez adopted a slightly faster-than-usual tempo for the third movement, which lent the music a bit more tension but also provided a strong frame for individual instruments and sections to play this totentanz with a balance of simultaneous devil-may-care elegance and exaggeration. Even a couple of ensemble lapses in the strings did not deter from the music’s ghostly atmosphere.

With its brilliant timbre and broad vibrato, Michelle DeYoung’s voice is almost too big for ‘Urlicht’ – but what she does with word-painting more than compensates, and in her instinct for building the big line she was entirely on the same wavelength as Boulez. Unlike many interpreters, Boulez leaves a few seconds of silence between the final, sustained note of ‘Urlicht’ and the opening of the finale, which erupted with a thunderous outburst.

Dorothea Röschmann. Photgoraph: Jim RaketeThis monumental movement is one of the most demanding in Mahler’s output, and for the most part Staatskapelle Berlin invoked the imagery with great success – not only the grandeur and excitement of the brass chorale or the colossal wallop of the march section, but the apprehension of the first big theme following the initial outburst in which the ‘day of judgement’ motif is accompanied by pizzicato strings. The orchestra’s energy seemed to flag a little in the section leading into the soliloquy between flutes and offstage brass, and there were a few issues with brass intonation (particularly the trumpets) – but those infractions were almost immediately forgotten with the hushed entry of the Westminster Symphonic Choir and Dorothea Röschmann, a combination that brought not only beauty but palpable fervency to Klopstock’s text. The orchestra seemed to regain its energy, and the succeeding verses of the chorale built to an unusually satisfying culmination.

Boulez is one of the least interventionist of conductors, and his punctilious adherence to the score yielded results that were almost contradictory: a performance that was both true to the score and unexpectedly passionate. Staatskapelle Berlin took on a deeper sound, more colorful sectional playing, and better balances, and that may have to do in part with a different string layout: Barenboim placed the second violins on the right and double basses on the left, whereas Boulez puts both sections of violins on the left, violas outside right, basses rear right. And while Boulez’s conducting gestures may not be as broad or dramatic as those of Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin responded with much stronger – and more physically involved – playing.

The musicians sounded like an entirely different orchestra – an ensemble, if one would excuse the term, resurrected.

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