Tanglewood Music Festival – Mahler Resurrection Symphony/Haitink

Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)

Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano) & Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)

Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 12 July, 2008
Venue: Tanglewood Music Festival, Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, Massachusetts

The Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood. Photograph: Kevin RogersWhat an absolute pleasure it was to be in Lenox, a small town 130 miles west of Boston, which, since 1937, has been the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home. Concerts take place in a covered outdoor venue named in honour of Tanglewood’s founder and former BSO-music director Serge Koussevitzky. Tanglewood is not just about BSO concerts. Throughout the season (this year 23 June to 31 August) there are events incorporating jazz, family concerts, chamber music (in Seiji Ozawa Hall), the Boston Pops Orchestra and some wine and food concerts. This year quite a few events are devoted to Elliott Carter in his centenary year. It is a testament to, in particular, the quality and resources of the BSO itself that it can play so many concerts over such a period and offers such varied programmes.

Having endured (there is no other suitable word) all of Valery Gergiev’s brash Mahler symphony cycle with the LSO, this Tanglewood concert showed what a supreme musician like Bernard Haitink can achieve in this music. Mahler’s own recognition of what a stupendous work this symphony is was fully realised: “I will probably almost never attain such heights or plumb such depths, just as Ulysses was able to descend only once during his earthly life into Tartarus. Only once or twice in a lifetime is it possible to create works on themes so stupendous…”.

Interior of the Koussevitzky Music Shed. Photograph: Kevin RogersWhatever reservations one may have about outdoor music venues they can be put firmly to rest as evidenced by the Music Shed. Put simply, this acoustic puts to shame all the concert venues in London. Every instrument, regardless of volume, was clear and natural-sounding.

Haitink’s account, at spot-on 95 minutes, was long but never dragging and was distinguished by rigour in following Mahler’s directions and superbly played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, extremely polished and alive to every detail in the score. In particular, the trombones and trumpets were near-perfect: never harsh or dominant but ‘there’ as required.

This intensely musical performance began with real attack and was notable for the building-up of tension in the movement, a masterclass in technique from Haitink who produced an emotionally-shattering central climax. The delicacy of the second movement Ländler Andante moderato was writ beautifully clear. Such becoming music-making only served to heighten the delight. The ‘St Anthony and the Fishes’ third movement was enlivened, with playing that eschewed pretentiousness and, in the “cry of despair”, brass-playing both virtuosic but perfectly balanced.

Christianne Stotijn. ©Marco BorggreveIn ‘Urlicht’ Christianne Stotijn captured the longing of relief from worldly troubles with natural and noble character – and made one think that this is perhaps the most beautiful five minutes of music ever written, complemented by some gorgeous flute-playing. (The sound of distant thunder heightened proceedings here!) The huge finale went beyond even the brilliance of the preceding movements. The ‘March of the Dead’ was compelling and the members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, singing without scores, were in great voice, hypnotic, very moving, and the final outbursts crowned the journey from the darkness to light that the symphony is.

A great orchestra, venue, singers and conductor made for a tremendous account of this work. Everyone in the Music Shed, and those who sat on the lawn outside, were enormously appreciative. If they read the programme, though, they would be under the mistaken impression that Richard Strauss conducted the first performances (the one of 4 March 1895 of the first three movements and the complete performance on 13 December 1895). It mistakenly credited Strauss instead of Mahler, who led both of these performances in Berlin.

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