OAE. Mahler: Resurrection Symphony

Mahler: Resurrection Symphony
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Philharmonia Chorus, Vladimir Jurowski
Royal Festival Hall. 12 April 2016

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is a remarkable institution. They are equally at home as a tiny Baroque trio sonata format, a string quartet in a crowded pub or, as they were on this occasion, with nearly 120 players fronting a choir of more than 130 singers in one of the major works of the late Romantic repertoire. They bring an extraordinary wealth of knowledge and expertise of period instruments and performing styles, and nurture, support and influence the conductors that they invite to direct their concerts. With Sir Simon Rattle soon to lead them in Bruckner, this was Vladimir Jurowski’s chance to put them through their paces with Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, the so-called ‘Resurrection’.

This often performed giant of the repertoire is very rarely, if ever, heard with the instrumental sound of Mahler’s time. And although that is only just over 100 years ago, the sound difference to the modern orchestra is almost as great as that between Mahler’s time and Mozart’s, 100 years before. The most noticeably difference we heard with the OAE’s performance was in the woodwind. I don’t often hear modern instrument orchestras but, when I do, I sometimes find it hard to work out which woodwind instrument is playing. That is certainly not the case in the Baroque and Classical era, and nor was it in Mahler’s time. The distinction in tone between the instruments is marked, as is the method of playing and articulating.

OAE horns.jpg
11 Viennese horns together – a London first.

This is particularly noticeable with the Viennese horns which, despite modern looking construction, require a different approach to playing. They are perhaps less risky to play than 18th century horns, but not that much easier. The same with the strings: although violin construction was relatively modern, the gut stringing produces a more mellow and sophisticated timbre which, when combined with the less strident initial transient from the start of the bow stroke, makes for altogether more moulded and refined sound. And although Mahler asked for the “largest possible contingent of strings”, the 71 used here (17,17,13,13,11) was still rather less than used in some present day orchestras for music like this. This, and the more subtle tone of the upper strings, allows the woodwind sound to emerge with greater clarity.

Mahler’s genius in orchestral colour, combined with Vladimir Jurowski’s extraordinary attention to the detail of the score and the phrasing and articulation of musical lines, produced a revelationary interpretation, both musically and aurally. Jurowski’s ability to move through the detailed and complex performing instructions that Mahler littered his score with was superb, as was his shading of colour and texture. It is only when hearing this work performed like this, that you realise how much of it is in chamber style, with simple lines, coloured by a variety of combinations of instruments. Mahler’s underlying sense of humour was also apparent, not least in the way he ends some of the movements and in little touches like the double basses tapping, rather than bowing their strings on several occasions.

photo by Belinda Lawley

Structurally the moment everybody checks out is Mahler’s instruction to leave a five minute gap between the first and second movement. On this occasion, the gap lasted about four minutes, which were filled with the arrival of the music stands for the side band, the two soloists and some tuning.  Those who attended the pre-concert talk (a new cooperation between the OAE and the Open University), heard that this gap was not for any spiritual or other esoteric reason but because Mahler, who composed the first movement well before the rest, didn’t think the two went together and didn’t fancy rewriting it. But, as Robert Samuels pointed out in his talk, there is a distinct harmonic link between the end of the first movement and the start of the second, highlighted by the moment when a trumpet switches the brass chord from major to minor, the resulting E flat note being the starting point of the second movement. This is the famous Ländler, a reflection of the rather stiff Viennese dances that Mahler would have experienced. Jurowski avoided the temptation to turn this into a Strauss-like waltz and kept the pulse stable.

The opening of following movement explained the reason for keeping the two sets of tympani separate on either side of the central percussionists. The tympanists even had colour-coded chairs, red for the port-side, green for starboard. Mahler’s representation of St Anthony preaching to the fishes because his congregation had all left ranged from a schmaltzy trumpet solo to the sound  of a smoochy night-club band. The so-called ‘Death Shriek’ towards the end is reflected in the opening of the last movement, and featured one of the many moments of sheer orchestral (and, later, choral) power from the massed forces.

The final movement was a triumph, with clever use of the space of the Royal Festival Hall to achieve the musical effects that Mahler calls for. And for those who couldn’t hear the off-stage band positioned in the stalls bar to the right of the auditorium’s central aisle, Mahler did instruct them to be “scarcely perceptible”. Even in my own fairly privileged seat, I could only just hear them. Any lack of audibility in those passages was more than made up for by the earlier off-stage horn players and the bevy of unrestrained trumpeters positioned around the galleries. The choir entry half-way through the last movement was magical. After the too-and-fro of the widely-spaced trumpets and the on-stage flute, they are instructed to remain seated for their pianissimo opening verses. Although the two soloists do not have a major contributions, mezzo Sarah Connolly and soprano Adriana Kucerová excelled, notably the former in her extended fourth movement solo.

After around 90 minutes of music of such power and tension, there needs to be sufficient left in reserve for this most glorious of finales. This was aided by the appearance on the sides of the main stage of the hitherto off-stage brass and horn players. One curious aural issue was that the organist was apparently instructed in rehearsal not to drown out the choir and orchestra but then played with a registration that was completely inaudible. Despite the score’s instructions of ff volles Werk (full organ), not even the low rumble of the now-audible lowest pipes of the restored organ could be heard above the many low bass orchestral instruments. A shame, as the use of the organ in choral works like this adds a distinctive colour to the ensemble and is intended to be heard through, but without overpowering, the orchestra and choir. The only other departure from Mahler’s intentions was also towards the end, with the substation of a pair of tubular bells in place of the real church bells that Mahler had purchased to replace the usual orchestral versions.

An extraordinary evening. Having conquered the ‘early music’ scene over the past 30 years, the OAE is now turning is sights on the Romantic era, not least with Simon Rattles’ Bruckner coming up next week. There is much they can teach us about the orchestral sound of this period and repertoire. Incidentally, I was delighted to find myself sitting next to a musical Mum who had brought her six-year old daughter along. A brave move, perhaps, but the young lady sat entranced throughout the whole 90 minute concert. A very good sign for the future of music.

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