Photo, Chris Christodoulou
Wednesday, August 24, 2022
Royal Albert Hall, London
Guest Reviewer, David Gutman
With Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony no longer a special event in the concert hall or on disc it can be hard to engender that sense of occasion. Here though one had the feeling of a potential winner. In what looked like a sold-out house, ticket sales were plainly well up on the norm for 2022 and this orchestra and conductor could not but bring their own histories of long-term engagement with the work. An earlier incarnation of the LSO was involved in 1963 when Leopold Stokowski presented the Proms’ first ‘Resurrection’, preceded by the conductor’s own arrangement of Bach’s C-minor Passacaglia and Fugue. The band also featured in Leonard Bernstein’s second commercial recording. After an appearance at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival, his chosen forces reassembled in Ely Cathedral, a building which posed exceptional problems for Humphrey Burton’s audio-visuals: “A camera crane collapsed. A bomb scare ruined the dress rehearsal. The sound track was invaded by squeaking bats flying high in the magnificent octagon tower and crashing into the film lights. But the performance itself had an epic power that Bernstein never surpassed”. No such problems in 2022 (even if the epic power was sometimes less in evidence than a certain lucidity) and the show will be televised on BBC Four on Sunday August 28. Technology has advanced for all that there’s no accounting for taste – someone had chosen turquoise and pink light installations appropriate to neither piece.
Only one of the nineteen Proms Resurrections prior to this one had been conducted by Sir Simon Rattle (in 1999). Not that his own Mahlerian credentials need be in any doubt. At the Proms alone he has directed the First (1987 and 2010), Fifth (1997), Sixth (1984 and 1995), Seventh (1989 and 2016), Eighth (2002), Ninth (1991) and ‘Tenth’ Symphonies – both the Adagio (1994) and Deryck Cooke’s five-movement performing version (1982). And decades ago as a teenager at the Royal Academy of Music he famously organised a performance of the Second off his own bat. It was the piece that made him want to be a conductor. In 1988 his first commercial recording of the work with Arleen Auger, Dame Janet Baker and Birmingham forces was feted as Gramophone’s Record of the Year. His farewell Birmingham broadcast won comparable acclaim, although some considered a twenty-first-century Berlin remake, again for EMI, over-studied. While Rattle’s Mahler continues to win high praise his exquisite shaping of individual phrases and textures can place limits on the kind of uninhibited emotional overload that for some is a Mahlerian prerequisite.
Before the main event on this occasion we had a curtain-raiser from the much-missed Harrison Birtwistle, first a tribute speech from the conductor, then the latest in a long line of scores major and minor given a significant hearing at the Proms. That sequence began in 1968 with Colin Davis’s premiere of Nomos and took in Sir Simon’s own conducting of Meridian way back in 1976 when he began his own Proms journey co-directing a London Sinfonietta Roundhouse Prom. A fanfare for woodwind, brass and percussion, Donum Simoni MMXVIII was written to open the LSO’s 2018-19 season and hence intended for the acoustically ungenerous Barbican Hall. Here strident brass echoed round the RAH in dour or droll anticipation of vaster resonances to come. The tuba returns at the end with a possibly tongue-in-cheek mini-solo cautiously descending into the depths.
A distinctive feature of the Mahler, apart from the choreographed standings, sittings, comings and goings of Louise Alder, Dame Sarah Connolly and the choruses – a notably strong team – was the fact that only the LSO was using the printed music. One expected the conductor to manage without a score. Some aspects of the interpretation were new. Mahler proposed a gap of as much as five minutes before the second movement, something rarely observed today though here it was long enough to allow for substantial retuning and a degree of audience restlessness. Perhaps it makes more sense when the first movement is played “with complete gravity and solemnity of expression”. On his Berlin recording it runs to over twenty-four minutes. Here it was down to twentyish and almost frisky at times, the aim being presumably to focus the weight on later stages of the work. Rattle still made a meal of the unmarked but traditional ritardando into the battering dissonance at the climax of the development while compromising on his deliberate treatment of the precipitate plunge that brings the movement to its close. The combination of swooning portamento and breeziness may have worked better for some.
The rest of the work was conceived as if in a single breath without pauses. The inner movements had perspicacious elegance, detail and delicacy – for me the Scherzo invariably outstays its welcome but at least the timpani were impeccably tuned – before the performance hit its stride with ‘Urlicht’, Dame Sarah sonorous, unaffected, somehow true. After which the Hall had its own contributions to make to the success of the night. There are few pieces that work as well as this one in the space, with offstage elements variously located around the balcony or gallery, imparting a curious village-band intimacy along with the expected grandeur. The ppp choral entry from the 297-strong contingent trained by Simon Halsey was suitably spellbinding, the rest ideally paced, radiating a self-confidence belying the ambivalence of Mahler’s faith and our own. A concluding standing ovation was perhaps inevitable yet largely deserved. To date only Stokowski has had the audacity to repeat Mahler’s final visionary choral sequence as an encore.
Symphony No.2 in C-minor (Resurrection)
London Symphony Orchestra
London Symphony Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
Sir Simon Rattle
Louise Alder soprano
Dame Sarah Connolly mezzo-soprano
with links to M2s conducted by Dudamel and Slatkin (see first Comment).