Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

There was a line in the booklet for this Mahler ‘Resurrection’ – “Strauss’s programme is the result of a planned quota” (Mahler about his rival Richard Strauss) – that gave a clue to explaining misgivings about this performance. This was as micromanaged a reading as I’ve heard – Mahler 2, certainly, but also Mahler two-dimensional. Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s speeds were broadly in line with other timings, but there was little of that illusion of spontaneity that can only come from a state of mutual anticipation between conductor and orchestra. In an instruction-laden score, Rouvali’s meticulous attention to things such as emphatic accents, well-tailored rubato, and accelerandos without much sense of danger, had the effect of making the first movement sound more superlatively crafted rather than the expression of the Totenfeier (funeral rites) of Mahler’s hero, a life-and-death struggle mitigated here but transcendentally resolved in the choral Finale. The devil, as it were, was lost in the detail, and for all the Philharmonia Orchestra’s excellent playing, I was aware more of lightness than weight, of head more than heart. It was just as well that the eight double basses, placed to the conductor’s left away from the brass, applied some trenchant rhythmic bite and air to the unstoppable procession to the hero’s grave. The first movement plays reality against memory with rare accuracy, and that was glossed-over here.

After this, there was no five-minute break, as Mahler requested, just a vigorously shushed dribble of clapping, and then straight into the Ländler movement, taken at the faster end of Andante moderato with a slightly overdone Viennese smooch from the strings, and again with a problem getting a handle on Rouvali’s direction as the music lurches back to the violence of the first. Then there was a pause, to bring in the two soloists and to give time for a retune, which certainly sabotaged the disruptive start to the ‘Sermon to the fishes’ Scherzo, again putting pressure on speed, which in turn diluted the effect of the violent outburst towards the end of the movement. And once more, it was the finely engineered shaping of phrase and line from Rouvali’s precise hands and baton that made you wonder about the slickness of response from the Philharmonia.

There was, though, magic to come in Jennifer Johnston’s quietly authoritative entry into ‘Urlicht’, which at last suggested the possibility of a parallel realm. Beautifully supported by oboe and violin familiars, her mezzo had the necessary colour, depth and style of engagement to suggest angelic ambiguity. Things got even better with a superbly eruptive jump into the orchestral start of the Finale, but misgivings resurfaced with the off-stage horns. Rouvali, again with great precision, conducted this, when the whole point, anticipated in ‘Urlicht’, is to suggest the huge distance between reality and new possibilities, with a different music asserting itself.

And regarding the stage-management front, the distance collapsed even further when the Philharmonia Chorus stood at its first entry, so that visually you didn’t register the effect of the disembodied, whispered sound from a somewhere very far away that Mahler wanted. The choir was marvellous, the pianissimo words crystal-clear, the German ‘schhhh’ sounds like puffs of air elevating Mahler’s huge structure away from the gravity of the here and now to another realm. Both Johnston and soprano Mari Eriksmoen unfolded from the choral mass with barely perceptible finesse, and while Eriksmoen over-dramatised her angelic agency, the effect of her light, silvery voice curling round Johnston’s more centred mezzo was pitch-perfect. The release into the choral ‘Auferstehung’ peroration was thrilling and well-balanced regarding the organ, yet as the tutti died away before the culminating blaze of bells and orchestra without chorus, it was clear that Mahler’s vision had not been fully served.


Live on BBC Radio 3:


Symphony No.2 in C-minor (Resurrection)

Mari Eriksmoen (soprano) & Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano)

Philharmonia Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra

Santtu-Matias Rouvali