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S & H Concert Review

Mahler, Symphony No.2 ‘Resurrection’, Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus, Inger Dam-Jensen (sop), Birgit Remmert (mezzo), Vladimir Ashkenazy, RFH, 4th June 2002 (MB)


Vladimir Ashkenazy 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.

Marc Bridle

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.


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