Review – Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”.
Ailish Tynan, Iris Vermillion, London Symphony Chorus.
BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena.
Saturday 24 September, 2011.
As I have mentioned in a previous post, Mahler is challenging to conduct convincingly. As well as being a master of orchestration and – what is often forgotten – having an incredibly keen sense of the orchestra’s colour palette and dynamic flexibility, he was himself an excellent conductor. Having been educated at the Vienna Conservatory he was well acquainted with – in fact acutely knowledgeable about – the music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven as well as of Wagner and additionally he was one of the few exponents of Bruckner.
All of these elements have to be considered, combined and balanced when it comes to performing his music. In the right combination, with an ensemble of the highest standard and under a conductor of intelligence, passion and experience, a performance can be truly remarkable.
And on Saturday night at Bridgewater Hall, at the inaugural concert of the BBC Philharmonic under their new Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena, all the elements came together, fused brilliantly and created just such a memorable evening.
Mena opened the first movement at a brisker pace than usual. From the first ‘bite’ in the tremolando strings and the rhythmically muscular cello entry – every note clearly discernable – it was clear that Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony was a piece that Mena was both steeped in and loved.
And in the opening section it was also clear that Mena’s approach would balance the “bite” with the lyrical. The violin theme is so often “chopped up” by conductors – even Jurowski in his recent and excellent recording – but Mena’s handling was much more song-like. And throughout the first movement, the attention was in the detail. Mena perfectly balanced the ‘walking bass’ against the woodwind so that as ever before I heard so clearly the inference to chorales.
In the first movement Mena also demonstrated a clear grip on the need for transparency and dynamic control. Throughout this movement and indeed the whole performance, he skillfully balanced the need for transparency so that Mahler’s detailed orchestration could be heard with a broad and at times astonishing dynamic range. It wasn’t until the cataclysmic chord halfway through the first movement that I thought that Mena finally unleashed the full dynamic power of the BBC Philharmonic. It literally made Bridgewater Hall hum. But I was wrong. He held back the full force of the orchestra until the final moments of the whole symphony and pinned the fact that he had – from the beginning – an unerring sense of the whole architecture of the symphony.
Mena took the landler-like second movement at a pace a hair’s breath faster than Jurowski. But while the latter conveyed more of a sense of ‘weight’ – and perhaps not the sense of ‘intermezzo’ that Mahler had originally envisaged – Mena struck a lighter, more genial note with an almost Latin lilt that was clearly conveyed by his own movements when conducting the orchestra. Methinks that on the dance floor Mena is light on his feet and a ‘mover’. However again transparency was never sacrificed for a sense of ‘moto perpetuo’ and at times Mena’s chambelike handling of the orchestra harked back to the symphonies of Beethoven.
The sense of perpetual motion in the second movement was carried over and maintained in the third movement. Yet Mena’s pointing up of the orchestral colours – particularly in the wind – created a different palette – nervous and threatening at the same time, ratcheting up the tension into the outburst from the brass. For the conductor this was a movement of distinct contrasts.
Iris Vermillion’s entry in Urlicht with “O Röschen rot!”, for which Mena daringly brought the tempo to its slowest ebb, was nothing less than magical. Hers is a rich and warm mezzo and she delivered a wonderfully sustained vocal line with clear diction and conveying a real sense of the words, particularly at “Ach nein! Ich liess mich nicht abweisen! Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott”. If you haven’t heard her then I would recommend her Abschied with Sinopoli or her recording of Alma Mahler’s lieder.
The final movement, opening as it does with the orchestra at almost full tilt created the right sense of rude awakening from the preceding bliss. Mena skillfully handled the off-stage performers against the full orchestra, managing the transition to the dialogue between the off-stage brass and the flutes. But it was the first hushed entry of the London Symphony Chorus with “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du” was breathtaking in its simple beauty. The sound they produced seemed to appear as if from nothing, perfectly balanced with clear diction and joined by the crystalline soprano of Ailish Tynan, a late replacement for the indisposed Susan Gritton. Ms Tynan’s voice glided over the chorus and melded beautifully with Ms Vermillion’s voice.
Mena kept control throughout the closing sections of the symphony, marshalling the soloists, chorus and orchestra to the thrilling climax at “Sterben werd’ ich, zu leben … Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du … Zu Gott wird es dich tragen!” and the closing bars of the orchestra. The silence at Mena lowered his baton, and the final sounds died away in the hall, was palpable.
Throughout the evening the BBC Philharmonic followed Mena with complete focus, instinctively translating every gesture and movement into music making of the highest calibre. Under Gianandrea Noseda the BBC Philharmonic developed a distinctly ‘European’ sound – warm strings, sonorous winds and some of the best brass playing I have heard. And under Mena this direction of travel seems set to continue. Is it perhaps no coincidence that Richard Wigley, General Manager and the orchestra have veered more towards European conductors than their other BBC orchestra colleagues? This distinction stands them in good stead and sets them apart. The other BBC orchestras are excellent but having heard them all at the Proms, and after last night, I believe that the BBC Philharmonic is the strongest of them all in terms of performance.
Mena’s control of speed showed a clear and in-depth knowledge of the overarching architecture of the symphony. From the brisker opening, through the incredibly slow yet serene Urlich to the closing bars, Mena had perfectly judged the tempi thoughout. Not only did he maintain a real sense of momentum as he unfold an incredibly musical interpretation, but never before have I heard the closing bars have such impact, not only in terms of sound but as a result of his perfect sense of proportion and balance in terms of tempo.
I look forward to future performances of Mahler by Mena and the BBC Philharmonic.
Saturday night’s performance of Mahler was – I think – one that the composer himself would have approved of.