Resurrection Symphony

Mahler
Symphony No.2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Sally Matthews (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 11 March, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A perplexing evening! Michael Tilson Thomas exudes charisma; the London Symphony Orchestra has had Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony in its bones since the 1960s, performing it then with Stokowski and Solti, and Bernstein a decade later; and, here, there was a palpable buzz of anticipation from a sell-out audience clearly ready for ‘Shock and Awe’.

Heretical perhaps to say, especially given his celebrity as a Mahler conductor, but Tilson Thomas brings a far surer touch to many other composers. With Mahler he seems to have particular difficulty in finding the right tempos or establishing any sustained momentum as he strays from the path to savour a particular moment. This poses particular problems in a sectional work such as the ‘Resurrection’. I first heard him conduct it in San Francisco some 18 years ago (before he became Music Director there). It didn’t work then, lacking weight and coherence, and it was only slightly more satisfactory on this occasion.

As one would expect, the massive first movement was launched with enormous éclat and power, every accent seized on with maximum vehemence, but very quickly the music lost all impetus thanks to MTT’s persistent over-reaction to Mahler’s detailed markings: ‘Beruhigend’ (calming down) taken here as an invitation to become more or less total stasis so that by the time we finally reached the ‘celestial’ string theme any sense of line had been lost. By contrast, the battering triplets at the movement’s climax were rushed, robbing them of the weight needed to clinch the eruption back into the recapitulation, whilst the movement’s very close was manifestly misconceived – Mahler carefully marks it ‘Tempo 1’, reserving the ritenuto for the last two pizzicato bars. MTT clearly thought otherwise.

At least the second movement Ländler was taken fairly straight at a relaxed tempo – better this than that it should be hurried – but it is a dance, albeit one marked ‘leisurely’. Here it so lacked any sense of pulse that it could have been a musical accompaniment for one of those mass Tai’chi events in Asian parks where 10,000 people perform carefully synchronised exercises very, very slowly. Things improved with the ‘St Anthony and the Fishes’ third movement which flowed quite swiftly, although even here MTT could not resist the temptation to gild the lily, imposing a huge unmarked ritenuto shortly before the movement’s close when none is called for.

Against the odds Karen Cargill, the soloist in ‘Urlicht’, triumphed with what must be one of the most testing entries in all music. She has exactly the right deep mezzo for the part. Singing with unaffected sincerity, she brought us close to the core of the music and received sensitive and understated support from Sarah Nemtanu, the orchestra’s quite outstanding Guest Leader.

The finale’s seismic opening made an overwhelming impact, the well co-ordinated offstage bands (positioned left and right of the platform) duly made a fine impression whereas in earlier movements there had been some suspect brass-playing, but when the Gates of Heaven finally opened the strings were all but obliterated by the overloud brass chorale, whilst the ‘War Music’ was manic rather than weighty.

Although the Barbican Hall’s acoustic is hardly conducive to ‘Misterioso’, the London Symphony Chorus did well with its all-important initial entry, as did Sally Matthews in her small contribution, blending well with Karen Cargill. Ultimately, though, what was lacking was a sense of overwhelming inevitability, of a gradual drawing together of threads and a collective appointment with Destiny.

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