Symphony No.2 in C minor (Resurrection)
Ricarda Merbeth (soprano) & Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano)
London Symphony Chorus
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Reviewed by: Robert Stein
Reviewed: 13 December, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
There are two principal views of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony. One is to play up its connections with his contemporary settings of the poems from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (bittersweet fables of disappointed shepherdesses and fated drummer-boys); the waltzing third movement, after all is the same music that Mahler used to set ‘St Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes’. While the fourth movement existed on its own as ‘Urlicht’ (Primal Light) before the rest of the symphony was conceived.
The other approach is to see the C minor symphony as an early (1887-94) attempt to tackle some of the themes of the later symphonies: the composer as hero, the pains of unfulfilled life, the yearning for rest and resolution, and the sunlit mountains where triumph shines dazzlingly.
There are cases to be made for both approaches, but Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, giving the second (matinee) concert of a two-day visit to the Barbican Centre and newly appointed as one of the Barbican Centre’s International Associates (as a post-concert signing ceremony involving Jansons and Sir Nicholas Kenyon witnessed), went clearly but successfully for the former.
In the first movement, an epic funeral march, this meant that the emphasis is on the hero’s (i.e. Mahler’s own) nobility and seriousness of purpose. Jansons’s conducting, here as throughout the work, was disciplined, clear, and keen to bring out details within a tautly controlled sound. This movement, which in other hands can sound wild, unruly, driven by the pace and swagger of the lower strings, here sounded like a confident and assured progress, a hero of legend, not a man cut off in the tide of his actions. Similarly, in those tender, wistful passages, typically where violins have the lead, or the oboe is given a particularly sweet solo, Jansons’s phrasing was tender, delicate (he abandons his baton at such points and shapes phrasing with his hands), the past recalled, rather than – say as in the Sixth Symphony – the past overwhelming. If the atmosphere is not febrile: the strings crescendo/diminuendo swellings are not going to engulf us, the jump-cut switches of atmosphere invigorate, but do not alarm, the world of the Salzkammergut is portrayed with such a refined beauty – in bird-calls, in distant reveilles, that Jansons’s restraint is utterly convincing.
In the second movement, marked ‘at a very leisurely pace’ Jansons’s reading was as before immensely refined, turning a rural Ländler into an extraordinary smooth Viennese waltz, with a sophisticated pause after the first beat, even if some might have queried how such urban smartness is to be found in rural Bohemia. If some conductors see this movement as an opportunity for irony, or at least reverie, then the third movement, a scherzo in all but name, is an invitation to grotesquery. But the irony of St Anthony’s sermon – the saint, finding no human congregation to preach to, tries the fish instead who listen but ignore him – is a gentle one, and Jansons kept brilliantly to the light tone of the wry German folk-tale whence the music comes. Thus the introductory passage for Rute (bundle of sticks played on the bass drum) was unlikely to stir up nightmares, nor the exposed descending brass chords either, but for Jansons, as he gathered his forces for the last two movements, this symphony was not a defiant stand against life’s horrors so much as a confident leading of humanity towards transcendence.
In this way, Bernarda Fink, while a trifle uncertain in the long-held notes that open and close her fourth-movement solo, sounded appropriately sympathetic rather than admonitory in “O Röschen rot!”. The off-stage brass, placed in two antiphonal groups commandingly high and invisible in the Barbican’s roof-space were assured, but there was no unwanted touch of sweetness or sentimentality as Jansons clearly rehearsed them with his familiar scrupulousness.
The finale was particularly impressive in Jansons’s handling. In a slow, stately reading, the gathered masses of orchestral forces fell in neatly as trombones moved forward in measured steps. There is no day of judgement in Mahler’s idiosyncratic theology, only the sure and certain hope of resurrection for all. The London Symphony Chorus (singing from memory) was equally assured, the basses impressively reaching down to the B flat below the bass clef, the voices of earth – bird-calls, the receiving heavenly choirs – all audible in Jansons’s painstaking but devoted, powerful but delicate unfolding of Mahler’s vision of the resurrection. The standing ovation seemed particularly appropriate.