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Saariaho & Mahler; Christine Brewer (sop), Petra Lang (mezzo); BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Jukka-Pekka Saraste (conductor); Barbican Centre, 1st October, 2004 (AR)


To open the BBC Symphony Orchestra's new season, Principal Guest Conductor Jukka-Pekka Sarsate paired fellow Finn Kaija Saariaho's sensuous new song cycle on the death of love with Mahler's Resurrection Symphony - a celebration of the eternal return of life after death.


It is worth quoting at length Saariaho's intentions when composing her Quatre instants (2002): "Quatre instants was born from Karita Mattila's desire to have a new work to perform at recitals she was giving at the Châtelet Theatre and Barbican Centre in April 2003. From my initial discussions with her, and knowing the vastly expressive spectrum of her voice, I immediately had a clear idea of the feelings that I wanted this work to evoke. I imagined a whole section of music built of contrasting images, subsections of which would be compressed into short but powerful moments. This reflection also gave the work its title: 'Four Instants'...The words and short phrases are codes which hide a rich world of sensations, colours and fragments."


Kaija Saariaho composes with great economy as well as eloquence: there is never a note out of place even when it sounds out of space - for she is a composer of a sound world of extra-terrestrial sensations conjuring the music of the spheres. She is a star who makes music shine: the orchestration of the score had a murky, blurring, smearing sound, as if hearing subaqueous music. This underwater quality threw into even sharper relief Christine Brewer's perfect, rich, full-blooded timbre performing this demanding and emotively charged piece. Brewer's penetrative voice had a vibrant intensity of expression. At times, her performance sounded more akin to sprechgesang - Schoenberg's Erwartung came to mind. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste gave sensitive support to this deeply moving and extraordinary score.


In recent times Yakov Kreizberg and Andrew Davis have given superlative performances of Mahler's Second Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre and these were going to be a hard act to follow, to say nothing of Gilbert Kaplan's paradigmatic account at the RFH. It has to be said from the outset that Jukka-Pekka Saraste is not a Mahlerian and seems to have little if any instinct or rapport with the composer's musical language.


Saraste's conducting of the Allegro maestoso was measured to the point of sounding ponderous and what should have been the central climax became a damp squib. The Ländler sagged, with Saraste adopting dragging tempi, fragmenting the flow of the music. Things deteriorated further in the chamber-like passages for pizzicato strings where Saraste almost brought the music to a halt; the magic was missing.


The Scherzo was by far the most successfully conducted movement with conductor and orchestra proving to be both buoyant and rhythmic. Mezzo-soprano Petra Lang's 'Urlicht' was divine and pure: perfect pitch and with golden sounds; she shone sublimely. Lang contrasted superbly with the shining soprano of Christine Brewer who projected her voice with a full blooming warmth and passion.


The opening of the final movement revealed Saraste having little - if any - control over the brass. Orchestral textures became little more than a torrent of anarchic noise. Off-stage brass and timpani, placed at the back of concert hall, sounded louder than the orchestra on stage for those sat at the back of the stalls; balance became distorted with the 'off stage', distant effect seemingly ignored. Anarchy reigned again in the Allegro energico, the annihilation of exaltation complete.


Of all the concert performances of Mahler's Resurrection I have heard in recent years, Saraste's was the one I felt least resurrected by. Inevitably, the closing bars brought the house down as was only to be expected - audiences love a big finish.


Alex Russell



Further Listening


Gustav Mahler Second Symphony; Resurrection, Stefania Woytowicz (soprano), Lucretia West (contralto) Wiener Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado (conductor), Salzburg, Grosses Festpielhaus, 14.8.1965; Arkadia ADD CDHP 542.2


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