"One is battered to the ground and then raised
on angels’ wings to the highest heights," Mahler wrote after hearing
his Resurrection Symphony for the first time. And in many ways this
was exactly the kind of performance Gilbert Kaplan gave us on Tuesday
evening. This was a performance that was often shattering, with some
of the widest dynamic extremes I have ever encountered in this work.
Whether it was the way Mr Kaplan succeeded in getting the Philharmonia
strings to hum like birds at Fig.5, with breathtaking clarity given
to the pp – ppp marking, or the fff opening of
the fifth movement which was given unusual terror, Mr Kaplan’s fidelity
to the score was absolutely convincing.
It was certainly an uncommonly
good performance, dramatically and starkly conceived as a single arc
in its expressive range. And although this was not a first performance
of the new critical edition of the score (due to be published at the
end of 2004) nor was it simply Mahler as we are used to hearing it.
Mr Kaplan had spent some time correcting parts in the Philharmonia’s
scores but it sounded very far from being a mere hybrid. Part of Mr
Kaplan’s genius is that any performance he does of this symphony just
sounds so different, so fresh. In the coda of the first movement, for
example, the inflexibility of Mr Kaplan’s initial tempi, so implacable,
was a welcome contrast to the three pizzicato chords which close the
movement, the balance between mf and pp achieved with
striking clarity and with equidistant rest marks observed. It is not
often played like this – and certainly not in the four other performances
of the symphony I have heard in concert this year. In the Ländler
he achieved a remarkable sense of Viennese grace without quite diminishing
the movement’s bucolic moments. It might not have been so effortlessly
played as this movement is on his new recording of the work but the
Philharmonia strings were buoyant and lilting with a range of expression
only this London orchestra seems capable of displaying at the moment
(and as if this needs to be illustrated further listen to how they achieved
such perfectly played glissandi in the first movement at Fig.23).
third was incisive – pinching timpani, noble
brass – with Mr Kaplan fully aware of the
movement’s sardonic implications. And as they
were to be in the final movement, climaxes
were crushing. At Fig.50, for example, with
strings crying out at ff he developed
a measured crescendo that built up to a massive
fff in the brass and woodwind that
imploded with apocalyptic force. Yet, the
coda – with a beautiful diminuendo on first
violins, and a gorgeously articulated pppp
in the ‘cellos that almost seemed frayed at
the edges, so angelically was it played –
was magical. Nadja Michael’s hushed opening
to the Urlicht section was perhaps slightly
heavy with vibrato, but she brought with it
a plushness of tone that proved to be a turning
point in the performance, an object lesson
in how Mr Kaplan would treat the voices in
this symphony, which would be given the same
clarity of phrasing as he had given to the
And the gigantic final movement
was a combination of awesome violence and almost reverential spirituality
(although, admittedly, Mr Kaplan’s rather than Mahler’s). After the
explosive opening bars (more profoundly gripping than usual), at Fig.8
Mr Kaplan shifted gear with the sense of mounting terror given cumulative,
tsunamic force. But even amidst this tumult he was able to sustain the
impression of hidden beauties in the orchestration. Quite possibly the
most extraordinary (and certainly most memorable) playing of the entire
performance came at Fig.10 where four trombones and a tuba intone at
pp for a glorious 8 bars. Not only was the playing of the Philharmonia
brass peerless it was also intensely moving with each instrument not
only a singular voice but a unified one that pre-empted the beginning
of the Klopstock resurrection theme in the chorus.
The choral singing itself had
tremendous clarity and reached its apotheosis in the movement’s crowning
passage which swelled dramatically, their last syllable gloriously taken
over by chiming bells. Yet, oddly, for all its impressive range, the
singing didn’t quite move in the way it should. But the ending – with
11 horns now on stage – was as satisfying as any I have ever heard,
an impressive testimony to both Mr Kaplan’s conducting and the Philharmonia
Orchestra’s belief in his approach to this masterpiece.
Throughout, the Philharmonia’s
playing was magnificent. If the strings did not quite achieve the sonorous
depths that the Wiener Philharmoniker do on Mr Kaplan’s new recording
(reviewed below) they made up for this with playing of superb range;
there were some literally transcendent pianissimos (especially from
the ‘cellos). On stage brass – notably the superb horns and trombones
– were impressive, with only the slightest hint of tonal problems occurring
in the off stage brass band in the final movement. But this was Mr Kaplan’s
triumph and a capacity audience clearly felt so too.
Kaplan talks to Marc Bridle about Mahler’s
Colin Clarke reviews Gilbert Kaplan’s new recording
of Mahler’s Second Symphony below:
Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’,
Latonia Moore (soprano); Nadja Michael
(mezzo); Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde; Vienna Philharmonic
DG 474 380-2 [DDD]
[85’48] Rec. Vienna, Musikverein Nov & Dec 2002.
Gilbert Kaplan’s obsession with Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony has
led him to Vienna. Here are his most recent thoughts on a score in which
he has located over 400 received errors in a performance that uses the
critical edition published jointly by Universal Edition and the Kaplan
Foundation. Most of these corrections will not be immediately aurally
obvious on hearing these discs, but what will be is Kaplan’s tremendous
and intimate knowledge of the score. Minutiae are worshiped and the
recording quality aids and abets this. Crystal clear, and revealing
the Vienna orchestra truthfully, this superior sound means that right
from the beginning doublings are aurally obvious.
The Vienna Philharmonic is in
tremendous form, backing Kaplan’s conception to the hilt. Singing, aching
string lines contribute to the ‘rightness’ this first movement exudes.
Only a couple of points raise question marks. The orchestral ‘crashes’
at 11’59 that interrupt a restatement of the opening gestures could
certainly be more visceral; without recourse to a transcript of Kaplan’s
scholarship it is likewise difficult to tell whether the Luftpausen
at around 14’24 ff are imperfectly realised or whether the effect is
purposeful. There certainly seems to be some editing here, as there
is a subtle acoustic change. The standard of playing is superb, of that
there is no doubt and the level of detail to be heard is a model, the
clear recording being part and parcel of this. Despite all this (possibly
because of it), this is not a movement of awe-inspiring grandeur of
conception and maybe that is Kaplan’s Achilles heel. He is still on
a journey to find his ‘perfect’ realisation, it would appear, and so
this is actually historical musicology in progress (albeit with the
greatest vehicle in the world to practice it on).
There is a literalism present
in the second movement that lends the music a certain dignity but robs
it of any suave leanings. The third movement avoids any such trap. Quixotic
and elusive, Kaplan here takes us into a shadowy world where bass-lines
creep menacingly. Unfortunately the horn ‘whoops’ (notated whoops, though)
are calculated in their execution, not nightmarish shrieks.
So to the first of the soloists.
Nadja Michael is the tremulous mezzo in ‘Urlicht’, far too much so and
it is especially distracting given Kaplan’s funereal pace. It becomes
in the light of this difficult to resonate with the underlying meanings
of Mahler’s chosen text (from ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’).
An over-careful approach is again
in evidence at the very opening of the final movement. True, one can
hear absolutely everything, but it sounds calculated. A pity the movement
starts like this, for it continues very well. Brass chorales are beautifully
warm; ‘Dies irae’ repetitions are remarkably ominous; off-stage brass
is miraculously balanced in the stereo picture. Yet the downside of
the recording is that some typically DG close-miking can really throw
the listener off-balance (be warned, flutes will whizz at you).
The segue between the dying
flute arabesques and the choral entry (‘Aufersteh’n’) is strange. There
is no pause between the two, no space to let the atmosphere resonate.
The chorus is excellent, though. A pity Kaplan makes Mahler’s orchestral
doublings of the chorus so obvious, as surely they are there to keep
less-than-top-flight choruses in tune. They do sound clumsy, it has
to be admitted. The final affirmation of ‘Aufersteh’n’ is not truly
climactic, a necessary consequence, possibly, of Kaplan’s approach,
but hardly an apt reaction to Mahler’s fervent religiosity. This is
not the affirmation it should be.
It would be interesting to clarify
the markings on the ‘sfp’s close to the end of the work: are
they marked ‘sffp’, then a ‘mfp’? Bernstein was one to
make a huge deal out of these (memorably), here they just sound literal.
There is much to admire in this
reading and the VPO is a delight from first to last, but ultimately
this ‘Resurrection’ does not emerge as the life-enhancing affirmation
it can be.
An artist discussion
with Kaplan is planned on the DG website for November 24th,
2003. Questions can be posted between November 13th-21st.
The Kaplan Second is also available on SACD (474 594-2).
Kaplan talks to Marc Bridle about Mahler’s