has always struck me as one of the most wilful Mahler conductors (a
Ninth some years ago left me fleeing the Royal Festival Hall after the
first movement); it is, therefore, to his credit that this performance
of the Second, under somewhat difficult circumstances, left a not inconsiderable
impression on this writer. Those difficult circumstances involved a
wailing woman screaming during much of the opening fifteen minutes (after
which I assume she was forcibly ejected). That Ashkenazy did not halt
the performance, despite ominous looks from the orchestra, was a triumph
of art over adversity.
The opening movement, however, did
suffer, not least from a forced tension which made this performance
more didactic than it might otherwise have been. The Philharmonia Orchestra
played somewhat reticently at first, although the climaxes were unleashed
with a terrifying power which, impressively, Ashkenazy let bloom with
extraordinary clarity. Rarely have the woodwind sounded so open in a
live Mahler Second as they did here, a more impressive achievement given
the dryness of the Festival Hall’s acoustic. What also impressed in
this movement was the playing of the strings – warm in tone, but deeply
sonorous as well. ‘Cellos were particularly fine. Yet, the movement
seemed to hang fire, Ashkenazy’s rubato at times appearing to deny the
span of the maestoso any real sense of line or architecture.
It wasn’t so much that this movement was devised in fits and starts,
more that it chugged along without any real sense of drama or theatre.
True, it had a boldness of colouring (the bass line had more rhetoric
than one could justifiably ask for) but this failed to make up for the
lack of unity, or some poor brass playing – horns and trumpets both
appearing flat toned with many more split notes than one needed to hear
from an orchestra of this calibre.
After this shaky start things improved.
The andante was more beautifully played than I can ever recall
live – simply gloriously played by the Philharmonia, although what Mahler
would have made of the girdle of lushness is another matter. Again,
the movement was slower than I would have liked, yet it had a gentleness
and lyricism that were beguiling to the ear, and for once the two harps
sounded as if they were playing in duplex. The scherzo rippled
along effectively, although again there was little sense of the dance-like
rhythms which should make the movement so sinister and flashing. This
was Mahler playing (and conducting) which owed more to late Mahler rather
than that of the Wunderhorn years.
From Urlicht onwards the
performance almost proved gripping. Birgit
Remmert made an impressive soloist and
possesses a rich mezzo voice which blossomed with a fragrant beauty
of tone. Her German was impeccable, every phrase and word sang with
considerable textual fidelity. The vast final movement began with a
fierce recapitulation of the scherzo’s anguished cry of despair, Ashkenazy’s
tempo much more fluid than they had been elsewhere in the work. There
were thrilling moments – the woodwind trills that gathered pace like
storm-troopers, the flaring brass (much better toned than in the opening
movement) and the glorious depth to the strings. Off stage brass sounded
ideally distant. But, if Ashkenazy had set the scene with an orchestral
opening which suggested the mounting terror of this work’s conclusion
we were ultimately to be disappointed. If Inge
Dam-Jensen seemed throaty and impulsive
in her soprano, the women of the Philharmonia Chorus sadly lacked any
sense of drama. Yet, if they seemed underwhelming the tenors and basses
were even more so. The chorus simply did not seem focused – put bluntly,
they were hopelessly underpowered. It was almost as if we were crawling
into heaven on hands and knees, tired and defeated.
Compared with Lorin Maazel’s towering
‘Ressurection’ from 2000, with the London Symphony Orchestra, this was
not in the same class, either vocally or musically. This may well have
been an improvement on Ashkenazy’s Mahler Nine which so disturbed me,
but I remain unconvinced, despite some glorious moments, that Vladimir
Ashkenazy is a natural Mahler conductor. Ultimately, his Mahler lacks
theatricality , and especially so in this work.
Further Mahler performances this
month include Lorin Maazel conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
in Mahler’s Third and Ninth symphonies. Read the reviews on Seen
& Heard after 23rd June. A review of Mahler’s Fourth,
conducted by Previn, will follow shortly.