Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)
Miah Persson (soprano) & Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano)
New York Choral Artists
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 22 September, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
Mahler’s pronouncement that “his time will yet come” is now a truism. After more than a half-century since the ‘resurrection’ of his music, audiences continue to revel in his symphonies. The monumental Symphony No.2, with its progression from the tragedy of death to the spiritual redemption through union with the Divine, speaks to our troubled times, offering a means by which to lift us out of ourselves. In this highly charged performance by the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert succeeded for the most part in communicating Mahler’s universal message of eternal life to open the 2011-12 Season.
Tempos were generally well considered, with the first movement’s majestic march being particularly imposing. The only exception was the rather rapid pacing of the Andante moderato – the second movement – where Gilbert seemed out of touch with the music’s classical grace and elegance. But when power and dramatic intensity are called for, Gilbert’s energetic approach often achieves both. Even when he indulged in excessive speed, as during the finale’s ‘march of the resurrected’, Gilbert showed a knack for making tempo adjustments to avoid losing touch with the character of the music; but some speed changes were disconcerting. The third-movement scherzo also suffered; modifications became necessary because Gilbert kept pressing the main tempo forward and his treatment of the Semitic thematic material was lacking in nuance and inflection, sounding routine and colorless.
As Mahler directs, Gilbert went attacca into the fourth movement, but he brought in the solo singers at this point, causing a disconcerting distraction that could have been avoided had they appeared after the end of the first movement, when Mahler asks for a five-minute break. ‘Urlicht’, included in Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, found Lilli Paasikivi in darkly colored voice. Although she made an effort to control her vocal power to suit the character of the setting, and was occasionally expressive, her way of conveying the simple faith expressed in the text fell short of success.
As is often true of performances of Mahler’s Second, the finale had the greatest impact. The overpowering cataclysm soon calmed down making way for the mystical ‘call in the wilderness’ on offstage horn that sounded as if it came from the heavens. The woodwinds’ hushed version of the ‘Dies irae’ had a strangely brilliant timbre that undercut its solemnity. Trombone and then trumpet softly intoned the ‘Auferstehen’ theme without sacrificing its majestic character. The full brass was outstanding, vibrant, full-bodied and stentorian. Incisively articulated dotted rhythms gave the march its required quality and enhanced its dramatic effect. The force and brilliance of the strings throughout were also very impressive.
The chorus sounded sublime in its hushed, solemn chorale. The soprano – Miah Persson in fine voice – Is supposed to enter as part of the chorus and then rise above it. Her placement in front of the orchestra made Mahler’s intended effect impossible to achieve. The duets for the soloists were urgent but forceful, particularly the second, “O Schmerz”, which was driven almost to distraction. Thereafter, Gilbert developed the gradual crescendo that leads to a stirring climax by pressing the tempo intently to the great ‘Auferstehen’ chorus, and then holding back as the singers express their deep yearning to be at-one with God, one of the most uplifting moments in all music, Gilbert and his impressive performers played and sang this exhilarating passage as if possessed by its message of hope for redemption. If we might only discover how to sustain the high that we feel after such a fine performance of this monumental work!