Resurrection Symphony

Symphony No.2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Susan Gritton (soprano)
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 6 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Mahler completed his monumental Second Symphony in 1894, and revised it two years later, and continued to make changes. (These are now published in Gilbert Kaplan’s Critical Edition of the work.) The music depicts the journey from the graveside – the first movement was originally the stand-alone ‘Totenfeier’ (Funeral Rites) – through to the day of judgement as the last trumpet sounds and all creatures rise up from their graves to the final resurrection (Rise again, yes rise again…).

A distinguished Mahlerian, Bernard Haitink conducted only the second Proms performance of this work, in 1967, which was also with the BBC Symphony, an orchestra that has changed a great deal over that time – and sometimes not for the better.

On the whole the performance, like the symphony itself, moved from death to rebirth. The mammoth first movement found Haitink making a valiant attempt to move on a dogged orchestra, even though his tempos, in particular in the first movement, were (characteristically in this music) on the slow side – but with a wayward violin and cello section any attempt to improve ensemble was doomed from the beginning.

The second and third movements, ‘intermezzi’ as Mahler called them, did fare a little better though there were still some problems with the overall ensemble. Salvation, however, came in the fourth movement “Urlicht” (Primal Light) with Christianne Stotijn’s bell-like tone cutting clearly through Mahler’s sometimes-murky orchestration. The BBCSO was on good form here, too, accompanying well and paying attention to the conductor, apparently for the first time in the evening.

The massive fifth movement is intended to match the first, a choral setting of part of Klopstock’s “Resurrection Ode” (with additional words by Mahler), which Mahler had heard at the funeral of Hans von Bülow who died in February 1894. Up to that time, Mahler had written three movements of the symphony but was stuck for an ending and, moreover, he was unsure how to integrate the movements.

In the finale the chorus members raised the ante with a powerful and moving performance that was sung from memory and which created a palpable atmosphere. Interjections by the off-stage brass, placed high in the gallery, were enough to send shivers down the spine, though the position of the two groups (one sheltered behind the canopy) meant audience members would have experienced a different perspective depending on where they were seated.

Towards the end Haitink, baton lying on his music stand, conducted the chorus as if it were a chamber group. The slightest hand gestures were transformed in an instant into music of such intensity and magic that the problems of the opening movement were quickly forgotten.

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