Maazel at 70: Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection", LSO & Chorus, Lorin Maazel Barbican 20th Feb
I have every sympathy for the queues of people snaking around the Barbican last night waiting for return tickets. They missed what is probably the greatest Mahler concert heard in London since Leonard Bernstein's Prom debut, almost fifteen years ago. On that occasion, the work he conducted was Mahler's Fifth with the Vienna Philharmonic. It was described, at the time, as an interpretation few conductor's could contemplate, let alone match, so coruscating was the vision.
Lorin Maazel's performance of Mahler's Resurrection, with an LSO on staggering form, was as great as this - and in the vast final movement seemed to have been touched by God himself. As the chorus, mezzo-soprano and soprano began their lines, Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n (Rise again you will) I was left physically trembling so shattering was the impact. The build up to the climax, a literally unforgettable blaze of sound - enhanced by four trumpets and four horns playing from the aisles - was inexorable, and unbearably moving.
But from the very beginning, this was an exceptional performance. The opening funeral march was painfully developed, with textures opened out like the leaves of a bible. The inner details of Mahler's score came out so naturally, woven perfectly from the sumptuous tapestry of notes . Strings, particularly the cellos and basses, played with a burnished tone as black as night. Woodwind were gloriously bright, brass deeply resonant. Maazel used his left hand to paint the most delicate of pictures: perfect pianissimos were sustained by him merely closing his fingers, and when he literally left the podium, levitated momentarily in flight, he gathered from the orchestra shattering climaxes. It was a very physical performance from Maazel - very much, in fact, in the Bernstein mould.
The inner movements, rather like intermezzi, were used to highlight the darkness and drama of the outer movements. There was some delicious pizzicato playing from the strings, superbly authoritative wind solos - and the most perfectly sustained pianissimo from David Pyatt's horn. The length of time he held his note was mesmerising. The magical entry of the mezzo which begins the fourth movement, Urlicht, was a perfect moment. Cornelia Kallisch sang with a velvety tone, a voice that is as comfortable in the lowest registers as it is the highest. It was as divine as Mahler imagined it to be.
If there was a disappointment, it was Sylvia Greenberg's soprano. Her voice had neither the authority nor the weight to ride over the orchestra and chorus. But it didn't really matter, since the final movement is greater than the parts that make it. The LSO's playing was demonic, with off-stage percussion and brass perfectly distanced. The sheer thrill of hearing eight horns, with bells turned up, was a glorious moment and as spine-chilling as it was coruscating.
The LSO chorus were on fine form, willing accomplices to an orchestra who were simply electrifying. The brass playing, to a man, was fabulous. But it was Maazel's evening. The standing ovation he received was fully deserved, and if he had never conducted anything except this performance he would still be remembered as a great conductor. This was an unforgettable evening of a performance of a life time.
The LSO's final concert with Lorin Maazel takes place at the Barbican on Tuesday 22 February in an all Strauss programme.
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