Mahler's Symphony No 2, ‘Resurrection’
The Gramophone Choice
Adriana Kucerová sop Christianne Stotijn mez
London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski
LPO LPO0054 (83’ · DDD · T/t). Recorded live 2009. Buy from Amazon
A performance of revelations, big and small, and easily the most illuminating to have appeared on disc in a very long time. Jurowski is probably now the prime recommendation, the ‘library’ choice, that has for so long eluded us. The really big factor here is Jurowski’s command of Mahler’s very particular and very dramatic way with rubato and the shock of newness that comes from those explicit extremes. When the music settles – the balmy second subject now shyly reappearing – the effect is doubly magical. Weight in Jurowski’s reading does not necessarily mean sheer heft but rather the breadth of those big expansive ritenutos and tenutos. Rarely have the wild neurotic contrasts in this music been more scrupulously and uncompromisingly realised.
So many moments in this first movement sound renewed. A strange, distracted elegance marks the second movement, with the restless string ostinato and especially the entry of the string basses serving to remind us that this is no mere diversion but rather an ironic variant, the flip-side, if you like, of the first movement. And an ironic rusticity proceeds in the vividly projected third movement with its quirky country dance in fiddle and flute, and delicious Trio in close-harmony trumpets. The climaxes again romp forwards with precipitous abandon while the soft, still, maternal voice of Christianne Stotijn seems to emerge supernaturally from the final tam-tam stroke.
The finale is tremendous and highly theatrical, with spatial effects beautifully managed in a hall not noted for its accommodation of acoustical special effects. You might quibble that the soprano soloist, Adriana Kucerová, is set too close for that magical separation from the chorus but the whole final paragraph is thrilling, with Mahler’s returning Resurrection hymn phrased with urgency and uplift. You may think you know how Mahler’s Second Symphony goes. Think again.
Miah Persson sop Christianne Stotijn mez
Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Bernard Haitink
CSO Resound CSO901 914; CSOR901 916 (82’ · DDD · T/t). Recorded live 2008. Buy from Amazon
Haitink’s previous recorded Resurrections date from the late 1960s and the early 1990s. In this one, captured live, he has drawn back from the dourness and deliberation of his Berlin account to offer a scrupulously prepared mainstream reading that only hardened sceptics will dismiss as merely stolid.
Not that any one incident is allowed to destabilise the organic development of the whole. Those accustomed to Rattle or Bernstein may be underwhelmed by the choir’s call to arms at ‘Bereite dich’ and, as you’d expect, Haitink eschews Solti’s ear-grabbing attack at the very start of the work. While the Chicago orchestra retains a corporate sonority of boundless heft, for good or ill some of its edges have been smoothed away. Woodwind detailing is exquisite if invariably rather strait-laced in matters of nuancing. After civilised and articulate accounts of the Andante moderato and Scherzo, Haitink’s ‘Urlicht’ is notable for the way Christianne Stotijn’s rich mezzo is integrated within a silky orchestral texture. The finale is firm and objective, the distancing of offstage brass nicely calibrated and the first choral entry exquisitely hushed (Miah Persson seems initially ill-at-ease).
Those who like more rubato in their Mahler – and perhaps a more self-consciously transcendent kind of experience – will look elsewhere. Lacking the ease and subtlety of the finest studio recordings, CSO Resound’s sound is immediate and suitably impactful once a higher-than-usual playback level is set. The conductor’s many admirers need not hesitate although they may regret that applause has been excised. They will be rewarded with an attractive, well-illustrated package containing detailed annotations, texts, translations and performer listings.
Lisa Milne sop Birgit Remmert contr
Hungarian Radio Choir; Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer
Channel Classics CCSSA23506 (82’ · DDD · T/t). Buy from Amazon
Stylistically, Fischer is right on the money. He has a keen nose for Mahler’s particular brand of the ebb and flow of the music, the way it speaks, or rather sings; the bucolic and melodramatic elements of the score are vividly conflicted; and best of all, Fischer really breathes in the atmosphere of Mahler’s precipitous flight to eternity. The second theme of the first movement, which Mahler requests enter tentatively, shyly, does exactly that – Fischer’s violins are barely audible, a rosy horizon briefly glimpsed through this bleak and forbidding landscape.
Few take this first movement to the edge of possibility that Mahler so clearly envisaged. Fischer does not shirk the often reckless extremes of tempo and dynamics but nor does he throw caution to the four winds in the terrifying stampede to its cliff-hanging climax. Leonard Bernstein is probably still alone in doing just that. But there are many other compensations here: a great sense of logic and line, a second movement whose homespun accenting belongs to a bygone era, likewise the close-harmony trumpets in the Trio of the third movement so touchingly redolent of another time, another place.
But the crowning glory is, as it should be, the finale – and it is here that Fischer, his performers and his engineers, really excel. The ‘special effects’ of Mahler’s elaborate Judgement Day fresco have rarely been so magically realised. The offstage horns are so breathtakingly remote as to suggest the world of the living left far behind. Moments of quite extraordinary stasis precede the sounding of the Dies irae and the hushed entry of the chorus. And come the peroration (resplendent with fabulous horns), Fischer knows that it is with that final crescendo of the chorus and only then that the heavens really open. Impressive.
Arleen Auger sop Dame Janet Baker mez
CBSO & Chorus / Simon Rattle
EMI Great Recordings of the Century 345794-2 (86’ · DDD · T/t). Buy from Amazon
Rattle’s first – Gramophone Award-winning – recording of the work. Attention to dynamics is meticulous and contributes immeasurably to the splendour of the performance. Dame Janet Baker is at her most tender in ‘Urlicht’, with Arleen Auger as the soul of purity in the finale. The CBSO Chorus is magnificent. Indeed, the whole finale is an acoustic triumph.
Kate Royal sop Magdalena Kozená mez
Berlin Radio Choir; BPO / Sir Simon Rattle
EMI 647363-2 (86’ · DDD · T/t). Recorded live 2010. Buy from Amazon
The pacing here feels overly expansive despite Rattle’s meticulous adherence to Mahler’s frequent and often extreme tempo fluctuations. Magdalena Kozená brings her customary depth of feeling to the still maternal voice of ‘Urlicht’ and, notwithstanding moments where one would like the veneer stripped off the brass (especially the first trumpet), the finale – with magical spatial effects – is magnificent. Rattle’s famous piano-pianissimos are deployed to breathtaking effect, the choral passages (radiantly illuminated at the top by Kate Royal) sound pure, mysterious and very Bachian, and the returning Resurrection hymn is tremendous. Almost a great performance!
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sop Hilde Rössl-Majdan mez
Philharmonia and Chorus / Otto Klemperer
EMI Great Recordings of the Century 567235-2 (72‘ · ADD · T/t). Buy from Amazon
You miss those elements of high risk, the brave rhetorical gestures, the uncompromising extremes in Klemperer’s comparatively comfortable, down-the-line response. He knocks minutes off most of the competition (yes, it’s a fallacy that Klemperer was always slower), paying little or no heed to Mahler’s innumerable expressive markings in passages which have so much to gain from them. The finale, growing more and more momentous with every bar, possesses a unique aura. Not everyone is convinced by Klemperer’s very measured treatment of the Judgement Day march. The grim reaper takes his time but the inevitability of what’s to come is somehow the more shocking as a result.