Philharmonia Orchestra/Gilbert Kaplan (4 November)

Mahler
Symphony No.2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano)
Nadja Michael (mezzo-soprano)

London Philharmonic Choir
Brighton Festival Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Gilbert Kaplan


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 4 November, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Mahler’s Second Symphony is nothing if it is not an Event. On this occasion the buzz of anticipation and sense of occasion were tangible from the moment of entering the hall’s crowded foyer.

And this was certainly an Event. It started with Gilbert Kaplan emerging like an apparition into a blacked-out Festival Hall to give an hour-long pre-concert audio-visual presentation about Mahler’s life and music. Three hours later it ended in a blaze of glory with the capacity audience taking the opening words of Klopstock’s ’Resurrection Ode’, with which the symphony ends, “Rise again, yes rise again…” quite literally, and giving the performers a standing ovation.

Kaplan’s well-attended and well-rehearsed pre-concert talk opened with a wonderful Schulz cartoon of Lucy and Linus. Linus is as usual lying flat out on the roof of his kennel; as Lucy explains, he has been to a long, long concert and is “Mahlered” out. One suspects that the composer would have been well pleased to learn that he has been immortalised as a verb.

Kaplan’s pre-concert presentation was curiously moving, its sounds and images evoking Mahler’s lost world vividly and communicating Kaplan’s transparent love and enthusiasm for the music with a complete lack of ego; one warmed to both men, composer and presenter alike. Particularly valuable were the recorded reminiscences of New York musicians who had actually played under Mahler.

The performance itself opened promisingly with careful attention paid to the first movement’s dynamic markings and detail. One could quibble with some of the tempo relationships – for example, by taking Mahler’s markings almost too literally, Kaplan set up some awkward joins. Forceful the playing undoubtedly was; however a degree of understatement earlier on would have enabled the movement’s real climax, at letter 20, to register with even greater force.

Curiously, it was the second movement, a leisurely Ländler – it is marked ’never hurry’ – which proved the least satisfactory interpretatively. Its lazy summer grace exemplified in that arching cello tune seemed to elude Kaplan and there was a degree of raggedness in the orchestral response. (Klemperer’s penultimate concert performance with the New Philharmonia in May 1971 came apart at exactly the same points!). The ensuing Scherzo is based on Mahler’s song “St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish” with which it was written concurrently and is marked ’with gently flowing movement’ – in this instance the fish swam rapidly!

The final part of the symphony linking Urlicht (Primal Light) to the massive finale got off to a good start, the mezzo Nadja Michael sounding almost as tenderly beautiful as she looked. The seismic launch of the finale having subsided, we were treated to the most spatial off-stage effects, the brass resounding from various different points in the hall. With Diana Damrau having cancelled, luxury came with last-minute substitution of Inger Dam-Jensen, a wonderful singer, here not quite on top form, who gave us some glorious Strauss with the Philharmonia Orchestra a couple of seasons back. The combined choirs of the London Philharmonic and Brighton Festival, packing every inch of the Choir Stalls, completed the line-up – this is music where choral numbers count – and they sang strongly if without the finesse of the Philharmonia Chorus.

The performance featured the new critical edition of the score, which corrects numerous mistakes, and is used for Kaplan’s recent Vienna Philharmonic recording on DG. To quote Kaplan, “There’s a score that Mahler maintained that was not known to the last editor. Mahler writes on top of it ’corrected and deemed to be solely valid’. He made his last changes months before he died. I own Mahler’s original manuscript. Mahler’s copyist made mistakes for the printer. They’ve now been corrected.” Frankly, listening with my old score to hand, I was hard-put to tell the differences – for example, an accelerando starting a couple of bars earlier than marked, but this might have been interpretative choice. [In fact, it now appears that this performance did not use the new edition, which seems curious, to say the least: Ed.]

However, nothing should detract from Kaplan’s very real achievement. As a publisher he had a dream – to conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony – he has made that dream come true with no less than 50 orchestras. His first recording of the piece, with the LSO, has evidently now sold more copies than any other Mahler recording and he has succeeded in bringing countless people to Mahler’s music – a considerable achievement.

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