Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Mahler: Second symphony

Royal Albert Hall, 9August 2013
BBC Radio 3, 12 August 2013

Glenn Gould(!) conducting the Urlicht movement with the amazing Maureen Forrester singing. 

A sometimes staggeringly beautiful account of this challenging work.

Despite queuing for ages, I just missed promming at this obviously highly popular concert. So I listened to the BBC Radio 3 relay instead.

In the end, this made better sense, as I could listen to Mahler’s obvious inspiration, Beethoven’s ninth symphony, beforehand.

In dramatising the symphony form, indeed making drama the purpose of a symphony, Beethoven perhaps unintentionally bequeathed a ‘finale problem’ to his successors.

Superficially, Mahler adopts a variation of the older composer’s own solution. But here the choral finale jars much less with what has gone before. The deeper connection between the works is that they are effectively religious works, attempting to find something to affirm amidst life’s difficulties.

I find Mahler less successful in conveying the problems to be affirmed, because there is no equivalent to the eloquent slow movement in the Beethoven – instead we hear life’s empty parade, or else a nervous kind of spiritual anxiety.

Which is not to denigrate the work’s genuine power. It is a vast musical equivalent to the contemporaneous Rilke poem, where an Archaic Torso of Apollo tells the poet he must change his life. If I’m unclear how I must do this, I am no less unclear after Beethoven’s ninth, though in both cases the music convinces me it is possible.

The radio engineers capture quite a lot more detail than is possible standing in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, but on radio at least this was a glorious performance.

Perhaps Mariss Jansons is a little too Karajan-like as a conductor, but the sounds he generates from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra are simply magical. It’s not possible to mention all of the great moments here, but in particular the way the voices arose from the orchestra, and the solo voices from the choir, was astonishing.

This approach to the symphony slightly reduces its momentum, for example in introducing the lovely second theme of the first movement. The greatest recordings of this work project a greater sense of urgency, more appropriate to the composer’s intention of a life-changing event.

If in the end this seemed more a celebration of life than an injunction to improve mine, what’s wrong with that?

It was hard to imagine the performers doing any better.

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