Salonen’s Resurrection

Mahler
Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)

Ruth Ziesak (soprano)
Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano)

London Philharmonic Choir

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 29 April, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

London is awash with Mahler symphonies. The Mahler famine of my youth has been replaced by the magic horn of plenty. Is it all too much of a good thing? Packed houses for the Vienna Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestras on consecutive nights suggest not.

This was a gala concert in association with the Embassy of Finland. When the Mahler industry was taking off several decades ago, a famous Mahler conductor’s irritated jibe was that everybody was climbing on the bandwagon and that soon an Eskimo would conduct a Mahler cycle. Esa-Pekka Salonen – not quite an Eskimo although he may be familiar with Samish, the Lap language – made his Philharmonia debut with Mahler’s Third Symphony back in 1984 (replacing Michael Tilson Thomas) and has been conducting Mahler’s music ever since.

Whatever one’s detailed responses, this concert fulfilled a key requirement for any Resurrection performance – a palpable sense of occasion from first note to last, with the chorus-capped finale coming off especially effectively. Salonen conducted with total confidence, which communicated itself to all concerned resulting in a particularly well co-ordinated response. Whether one appreciated the wide-screen, in-your-face theatricality is another matter, though there was little doubt as to its effectiveness.

Salonen set off at a drivingly brisk clip – with not much hint of the marked Maestoso – and with extreme vehemence, then lost impetus at the second subject but was generally able to re-establish tempo where it mattered. However, the frenetic speed did mean that, despite being very, very loud, the hammering triplets at the movement’s true climax lacked weight – they are marked “don’t hurry” and “weightier” – and so failed to register fully. Throughout this movement Salonen overreacted to Mahler’s myriad markings, necessitating some awkward gear changes.

The Ländler second movement was well related at the points where it frequently falls apart but slightly lacking in that lazy, summer afternoon grace, especially in the lovely arching cello tune. In the Scherzo, based on St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes, the fish swam decidedly rapidly, and a curious coincidence that just two nights earlier in this Hall, Berio’s Sinfonia had been heard, its central panel dominated by this Mahler movement.

After “Urlicht”, Charlotte Hellekant a fine Mahler singer not quite on top form, the opening of the finale was aptly seismic. The off-stage brass – without gratuitous spatial tricks – was notably well integrated. Then the heavens opened, although the dead were marched off to Judgement a little too enthusiastically (more reluctance to confront their Maker, surely?). The ‘last trump’ was effectively projected with particularly fine piccolo playing from Keith Bragg before the awed entry of the chorus of ‘saints and heavenly beings’ in the substantial form of the London Philharmonic Choir(whatever happened to the Philharmonia’s own choir?) with Ruth Ziesak the affecting soprano.

Salonen is a potent choral conductor, the chorus had already performed the work with him in Paris, and it showed. The ovation was deserved.

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