Philadelphia Orchestra/Eschenbach in New York – Mahler Resurrection Symphony

Symphony No.2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Simona Šaturová (soprano)
Yvonne Naef (mezzo-soprano)

The Philadelphia Singers Chorale

Philadelphia Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 8 May, 2007
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Music Director, Christoph Eschenbach, led the orchestra in a powerful performance of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony at a sold-out Carnegie Hall.

The forces filled the stage completely. The symphony is scored for an enormous orchestra: four flutes (all doubling piccolo), four oboes (two doubling cor anglais), three clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet) and two E flat clarinets (one doubling clarinet), three bassoons, contrabassoon, ten horns (four used offstage), ten trumpets (four used offstage), four trombones, tuba, percussion, two harps, organ, and large numbers of all the strings.

The Second Symphony was composed over a period of some six years. Mahler came to view his original 1888 sketch for the introductory movement of a symphony as a symphonic poem, Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites), which he published and performed as a separate work, but when he resumed composing the symphony in earnest in 1893, he again envisioned it as the first movement. During that summer he completed the second movement Andante from themes he had also sketched in 1888, and worked on song-settings of poems from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”, including two that found their way into the symphony, one used as the basis of the third movement scherzo, and the other added as the symphony’s fourth movement. Mahler completed the Second Symphony in 1894, revising and re-orchestrating Todtenfeier and composing a fifth movement that included vocal soloists and a mixed chorus singing texts on the theme of Resurrection – a fitting counterpart, both in subject and scale, to the funeral march with which the symphony begins.

Before Mahler withdrew all of his programmatic descriptions of his music, he had commented that Todtenfeier represented the burial of a hero figure depicted in his First Symphony. Funeral music provides the dominant thrust of this movement and keeps returning, introduced by a powerful and striking motif in the low strings. The string sections were excellent in those passages, with the violins and violas playing tremolos as the cellos and double basses made their initial attack, which developed into an ostinato at the very beginning of the work. Each time the motif of that opening passage was reiterated, Eschenbach made it feel startling and fresh, emphasising how each recurrence differed from earlier ones.

The essence of the first movement lay in the funeral march sections, but lyrical passages, particularly in the development section, were not neglected and, indeed, were beautifully played. One notable example came at the beginning of the development as a horn duet above ppp violins was followed by a pastoral theme, first on cor anglais with a countermelody on bass clarinet, and then on violas and cellos with a harp playing the countermelody. Moments later, the cor anglais and bass clarinet played an extended duet accompanied by repetitive figures on the violas, cellos and double basses, creating a lush, deep sonority. Later, there was a lively but gentle duet between flute and harp that served to relieve the tension that exploded into chaotic climaxes just before, and soon after, that lyrical passage. Nevertheless, as Eschenbach led the orchestra through the movement’s many exciting dynamic and tempo changes, it was the power and persistence of the marching horns, trumpets and low strings that dominated.

After the potent first movement, the opening of the Andante – a dainty Ländler, seemingly a throwback to the classical era – could hardly provide a greater contrast. As the second movement began, the strings took the Ländler rather slowly, but soon sped up and played ppp staccato triplet figures, virtually quoting the scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, whilst the harps, solo horn, solo flute, and later a larger wind ensemble played lyrically above. When the original tempo and theme returned, played by muted violins and violas, the unmuted cellos stood out with a gorgeous countermelody.

The ensuing section took on a more forceful and agitated character, and Eschenbach seemed very much in his element. The triplet figures returned in the strings – this time beginning fffand no longer played staccato – with horns, trombones, trumpets and winds joining the fray. In a transitional passage that Eschenbach handled adroitly, the surging string figures eventually lost their energy and became increasingly halting, then broken, and ultimately reduced to a single pp note in the second violins. When the Ländler returned this time, it was played pizzicato by the entire string section, with accents from piccolo, flute and harp – a marvellous effect.

The third movement was a tour de force, brilliantly conducted by Eschenbach and played by the Philadelphians. This scherzo is largely based on ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’ (St Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fish), one of Mahler’s songs from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”, in which the saint, finding his church empty, preaches a sermon to the fish, which ignore him completely. Mahler imbued the scherzo with the song’s bouncy, humorous spirit, and Eschenbach captured it quite well, starting with a pulsing rhythm provided first by timpani, then by alternating beats of the bass drum with taps on its case with the rute, and finally by the lower strings as the violins, clarinets and flutes successively played the initial theme. The humorous nature of the movement was firmly established by a jocular, chromatic melody on E flat clarinet, accompanied by the strings playing col legno – an episode that repeated following an exchange of figures between the antiphonal first and second violins.

Mahler interspersed the ‘Fischpredigt’ passages with new thematic material, beginning with an incredible effect as a piccolo and flute held a high C for some fifteen measures as a C major theme was introduced by the cellos and basses, leading to a fugato passage in the strings. The trumpets, which were particularly outstanding throughout the scherzo, suddenly interrupted the strings with a fanfare in D major, leading to a clarinet solo and then a delicately played duet by the first flute and solo violin, which the trumpets again interrupted, their fanfare this time in E major. With Eschenbach swaying on the podium to a slowed tempo, a quartet of trumpets played the movement’s most beautiful passage, featuring a lyrical theme in the first trumpet that was soon taken up by pairs of flutes, oboes and clarinets and then repeated by the first trumpet. Throughout this section of the scherzo, Eschenbach paid close attention to the multitude of little details with which the score abounds: flute trills, harp arpeggios, glissandos in the harps and violins, and descending ppp figures played successively by each of the string sections until the double basses, not content to wait their turn, interrupted with a powerful return to the original tempo.

Here the wind players were exceptional as they played in a variety of combinations and permutations, including at one point three clarinets and two bassoons playing first with two piccolos and then two oboes, with the texture becoming even denser as two flutes joined the ensemble. After the E flat clarinet reprised its humorous theme, the music became louder, more dissonant and lower in pitch, with bass drum, tam-tam, tuba, trombone, contrabassoon and double basses joining to introduce a darker element that pervaded the rest of the movement. Soon the trumpets interrupted again, their fanfare this time more persistent and joined by massive forces, including six horns, four trombones and tuba as well as the entire wind and string sections, and two sets of timpani, bass drum, and two tam-tams, all driving a huge crescendo that culminated in a dissonant fff chord. When the music gradually quietened, the first violins played a variant of the lyrical trumpet theme whilst a pair of trumpets softly played a figure that anticipated the symphony’s finale. A return to the ‘Fischpredigt’ material was short-lived, rather quickly winding down to a final chord on the contrabassoon, three horns, two harps, double basses and low tam-tam.

Before the tam-tam’s final reverberation died away, Yvonne Naef’s lovely mezzo voice rang out clearly with the opening verse of ‘Urlicht’ (Primal Light), another of Mahler’s ‘Wunderhorn’ songs. This time, however, he was content to create a tender orchestral setting of the song rather than using it as a launching point for a much broader musical statement, as in the preceding scherzo movement. Naef’s apostrophe to a ‘little red rose’ was followed by a marvellously played chorale-like passage played by three trumpets, four horns, bassoon and contrabassoon. As Naef sang of the painful condition of mankind, the strings were joined first by two trumpets and then by solo oboe, and as she related an encounter with an angel, the tempo became ‘more lively’, the key changed, and the clarinet, horns, glockenspiel, harps and two solo violins established a brighter tonality which the piccolo and flutes continued.

The concluding verses, expressing faith that God will provide a light to illumine the way to ‘eternal, blessed life’, returned to the movement’s original key and slowed dramatically. Naef sang with great depth of feeling, and her vocal line remained warm and clear through the final pp and ppp passages. As the song ended, Eschenbach carefully brought up the second violins and the lower strings just enough to balance the two solo violins and the first violin section, bringing the movement to a satisfying harmonic resolution.

The feeling of solace with which ‘Urlicht’ ended did not last long, however, as the orchestra plunged attacca into the fff introduction of the final movement, its terrifying dissonance accompanied by a fanfare for trumpets and trombones. This quickly gave way to a much slower and quieter passage in which the glockenspiel chimed softly over harps and rumbling cellos and basses, and the horns introduced a two-part motif. As the music died away, the pp tam-tam and bass drum roll and cello tremolos culminating in C octaves, brought back some of the feeling of the opening movement’s funeral march.

The echo effect with offstage horns – the first of several times that offstage instruments were heard – was managed quite well, as were the ensuing passages, which were dominated by triplet rhythms. First, triplet figures were played successively by solo oboe, horn and harp, flute, clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, double basses and timpani, whilst the muted strings played trills and the trombones provided a gentle harmonic resolution. After a momentary pause, a chorale played by solo flute, oboe and clarinet was accompanied by pizzicato strings that changed from four-note figures to triplets as solo trombone and trumpet played lyrical melodies with a lovely, rounded sound and not a trace of harshness. Triplet rhythms also pervaded motifs bandied about by four horns, two cor anglais (rather a rarity!), pairs of clarinets and oboes, and a quartet of flutes. When the offstage horns responded, they were accompanied by runs of triplets ascending from solo bassoon to clarinet and then flute, and, as offstage trumpets played, the triplets descended from flute to clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, and finally to the double basses.

In the next section, Eschenbach sustained the sense of unresolved agitation generated by violin tremolos accompanying plaintive wind passages featuring cor anglais, with pairs of E-flat clarinets and piccolos joining to soar above and rapid trumpet figures conveying a sense of urgency. Relief from this tension came with a magnificently harmonised chorale for the full brass section, beginning pp and building through a powerful crescendo to ff, followed immediately by a horn fanfare echoed by the trumpets. As the chorale resumed in the brass and horns, it was accompanied by trilling piccolos, flutes clarinets, triangle, violins and violas, creating a glorious effect, and then by triplet figures in the winds and tremolo violins. The music then quietened, ending with a brilliant sustained high G on solo trumpet, beginning ff and gradually fading to pppp.

A brief passage on harps and double basses led to a pair of enormous percussion crescendos that truly shook the Hall and ushered in an initially unsettling allegro section that transformed gradually into a stirring military march. As the sections of the orchestra exchanged thematic material, the resonance of the brass stood out against the contrapuntal strings and winds, but the march ultimately collapsed in dissonance.

A soft trombone solo drew commentary from the winds and horns, and an extended cello passage was conflated with seemingly unconnected outbursts from offstage trumpets and percussion – bass drum, cymbal and triangle. As the violins took over the melodic line, the door leading offstage was opened wider and the interruptions grew accordingly louder. Finally, the brass section and horns, accompanied by contrabassoon and double basses, came to the forefront, propelling the music to yet another dissonant crash.

A mysterious, quiet passage began with violin tremolos and a steady timpani beat, against which harps, horns and glockenspiel sounded intermittently and two trumpets played a gentle theme. At this point, the offstage musicians took over, beginning with a horn call and a slow trumpet motif with the onstage orchestra silent except for a very soft bass drum roll and a brief solo flute figure and trill, and then a rapid, unaccompanied contrapuntal trumpet quartet. Then, accompanied offstage by timpani rolls, horns and trumpets, the solo flute and piccolo, emulating birdsong, faded quietly away, whereupon soprano soloist Simona Šaturová and chorus entered, a cappella, singing text from Friedrich Klopstock’s “Aufersteh’n” (Resurrection), which Mahler had heard sung as a chorale at a memorial service for Hans von Bülow in 1894.

The Philadelphia Singers Chorale showed its mettle with a clear and luminous ppp in the first lines of Klopstock’s poem. As the Chorale’s members sang of ‘eternal life’, trombones and muted strings entered to provide some barely audible support for the vocal lines, and Šaturová’s soprano then soared glowingly above the chorus to conclude the opening stanza. An orchestral interlude featured horns and trumpets accompanied by trills in the strings, winds and triangle. The tenors and basses began the second stanza of the poem, and the women soon joined them with Šaturová again heard above the chorus as the stanza came to an end. The orchestra’s delicate phrasing made the ensuing passage one of the most touching of the entire symphony, with rising motifs on the horns, solo trumpet and trombones above harp glissandos, followed by an achingly beautiful passage on violins, solo harp, the ppp return of the horns, trumpets, trombones and harp glissandos, and finishing with two solo violins in unison ending on a high E two octaves above the staff.

The remainder of the text was written by Mahler himself, beginning with “O glaube, mein Herz” (O believe, my heart), which was sung beautifully by Naef initially in duet with solo cor anglais accompanied by viola tremolos, and then in duet with solo trumpet and tremolos on the second violins. Šaturová sang the next stanza with a clarion sound to a predominantly string accompaniment before the male choristers re-entered and were joined by trombones, tuba and trilling muted violins. Two trumpets entered and the dynamic level rose as the altos and then the sopranos rejoined the tenors and basses. A sudden choral ff at the words “Bereite dich!” (Prepare yourself!) was short-lived, and the dynamics soon returned to ppp.

Naef and Šaturová sang beautifully an extended duet over an impassioned string accompaniment before the chorus returned for the concluding verses of Mahler’s text, accompanied by horn and flute solos and harp glissandos and arpeggios. The chorus, increasing gradually from ppp to fff, was joined by the vocal soloists in the final stanza – which began (as had Klopstock’s text) “Aufersteh’n” – with the organ providing powerful harmonic support from that point to the symphony’s end. In the climactic final passages, the full power of the horns (all ten of them) and the brass (including six trumpets) came to the fore, with harps and percussion also contributing mightily to the final fff chord.

Overall, this performance emphasised the powerful aspects of Mahler’s work rather than the more delicate ones, but that did not seem at all inappropriate. The Second Symphony is by nature quite episodic, particularly in the first and last movements, and Eschenbach succeeded for the most part in maintaining thematic connections between episodes, both within and among the symphony’s movements. He also carried out skilfully Mahler’s various special effects and directions. The performance was an effective showcase for the Philadelphia Orchestra, with the horns and brass uniformly noteworthy and many marvellous solos coming from each of the other sections. The solo and choral vocalists were excellent, doing their part to give the concluding portion of the symphony its enormous impact.

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