Prom 49: London Symphony Orchestra – Simon Rattle conducts Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and Birtwistle’s Donum Simoni MMXVIII

Donum Simoni MMXVIII

Symphony No.2 in C-minor (Resurrection)

Louise Alder (soprano) & Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)

CBSO Chorus
London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 24 August, 2022
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Simon Rattle dedicated this Prom to the memory of the late Harrison Birtwistle, and so appropriately began in homage to him by returning the compliment of the gift which the composer had made (to Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra) with Donum Simoni MMXVIII, written as the flourish to open that orchestra’s season of 2018-19. Just as Rattle observed that Birtwistle had told him not to “pretty up” the work in performance, so it received a stark, trenchant account from the LSO wind and percussion here. In the midst of that, the tuba lumbered in, like an evocation of Wagner’s Fafner or some other beast awakening from deep sleep, but also having the last lugubrious, enigmatic word.

There was no clearer sign that the Proms were back to normal, vigorous life after the two compromised seasons during the pandemic, with massed orchestra, chorus, and the rest of the Royal Albert Hall packed to capacity for Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. Together with the CBSO and London Symphony Chorus, Rattle and the LSO gave not so much a monumental reading – though it often completely filled the Hall, exploiting its expanse with the required ‘offstage’ brass and percussion thundering down from the gallery – as a mesmerising and sometimes terrifying narrative of death, horror, and despair, resolved into hope and resurrection. The drama was helped along by the fairly brisk pace taken throughout much of the performance, and the almost immediate attack on the drumbeats at the opening of the third movement Scherzo and the Finale’s cacophonous ‘cry of disgust’ after the movements that precede them.

A sense of foreboding narrative was established at the outset with the lower strings’ solidly purposeful, portentous line below the monotonous patter of the upper strings’ tremolando, recalling the fateful stormy opening of Die Walküre. After some meandering from the brass with not all notes correctly placed, the wild central section climaxed with their devastating, spine-tingling sequence of dissonant chords which ushered in the recapitulation, as though in shock. In the subsequent movements Mahler’s graphic orchestrations were colourfully realised here, but never as mere diversion or sensational effect. The apparently amiable, flowing opening of the second movement was followed with the more probing, troubled scampering around of the strings in triplets, here seeming to summon (even at the quietest volume) the same implacable energy as the triple-time Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth.

The wry basis of the real Scherzo here – a theme taken from the Knaben Wunderhorn song ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’, in which the fish return to their old habits after hearing the saint’s sermon – became something more whirring and deliriously sinister with the lurid sonorities of clarinet and other woodwind, and brass descending as though drunkenly not just to inactivity but to extinction. The first appearance of the ‘cry of disgust’ crashed in here, heralding damnation. ‘Urlicht’ continued the narrative, in Sarah Connolly’s rendition not a honeyed, sustained lament but a more dynamic song, impelled with some urgency by its not overly slow pace and her delivery of some lines like a recitative. The notes of the first full line on “Der Mensch liegt in grösster Noth” moved ahead slightly faster than the strings’ chords, seemingly also a deliberate strategy to push the movement on.

As demonstrated again in the lengthy Finale, Rattle’s concentration on details of timbre and orchestra effect didn’t detract from the Symphony’s overall architecture. Transitions between disparate episodes were masterfully handled so as to create a coherent and unified argument, so that there was a sense of inevitability and finality when the chorus, with Connolly and Louise Alder, at last stole-in to voice Friedrich Klopstock’s great hymn to resurrected life. Having remained seated for the first passages, the choir itself literally rose for the  section from “Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen”, bringing solemn and dignified confidence, not ecstasy, to the concluding vision of the soul’s afterlife, but a triumph nonetheless.

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