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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Mahler, ‘Resurrection’ Symphony:
Sally Matthews (Soprano), Karen Cargill (Mezzo), Various Choruses, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Gilbert Kaplan (Conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 18.10.2005 (JPr)

‘It’s not just a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that!’ I always submit should have been said by Woody Allen but – of course – is about football. However, this just about sums up Mahler’s great exploration into the meaning of human existence that is Mahler’s Second Symphony known to one and all as the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony.

Not too long ago a performance of the Second Symphony in London had an intriguing post-performance epilogue when up popped the British Mahler Society to make its presence felt in the Letters page of The Times newspaper. A review (by Richard Morrison) of this London Symphony Orchestra concert in that newspaper had commented that after the first movement the conductor had ‘left the platform, the orchestra retuned, the audience chattered, and far too long passed before he returned with the soloists’. It was the GMS UK’s membership secretary, Neil Rhind MBE, who subsequently informed readers of The Times that ‘
Indeed Gustav Mahler did specify a five minute pause between the two blocks of his “Resurrection” Symphony. He also specified that the audience should keep quiet and that there should be no unnecessary noise or disturbance to interrupt solemn contemplation. The late Sir John Barbirolli shushed both chatterers and those who attempted to applaud the entrance of the soloists during the pause’.

Is Mahler’s Second Symphony meant to be a quasi, or even real religious experience? The answer is no, of course not. Sometimes though it can get mighty close to one as Arnold Schoenberg once wrote: ‘The first time I heard Mahler’s Second Symphony I was seized, especially in certain passages, with an excitement which expressed itself even physically, in the violent throbbing of my heart. And I was overwhelmed, completely overwhelmed’.

Mahler generally, I believed, abhorred giving his music a ‘programme’ … a case of the expressible attempting to explain the existential … however we can consider the five movements as follows: Movement 1 (Allegro maestoso) contains music that is dominated by a funeral march as our ‘hero’ (Mahler himself since he was the very same ‘hero’ of his own 1888 First Symphony) is taken to his grave and his life, all he wished for himself and planned for, is re-evaluated. Movements 2 (Andante moderato) and 3 emphasise life’s trivialities and bring us reminiscences from our hero’s past – highlighting the good times expressed in the Ländler dance rhythms of the second that are overtaken by a symphonic Scherzo in the third to depict the futility and ups-and-downs of life in a grotesque, cynical waltz based on musical material from the Wunderhorn song ‘St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes’.

In the closing two movements there is a reconciliation effected between Man and God so that any despair at the pointlessness of existence is countered by the hope of salvation. ‘I am from God, and would go back to God!’ begins with the entry of the simple ‘chorale’, ‘Urlicht’ (‘Primal Light’ - another Wunderhorn song), which the solo mezzo-soprano sings as a voice of simple faith ushering in the fourth movement. This is just a moment of music drama that acts as a prelude to the finale. We have come at last to the Final Judgement – ‘The earth quakes, graves burst open, the dead arise’. Distant brass, ominous drum rolls, melodramatic penultimate and Last Trumps; surge forward and gain in intensity towards the cataclysmic final chorale. Time definitely seems to stand still and then ‘the last trump sounds again’, the soprano introduces warmth and humanity into the proceeding joining the chorus after their breathtaking ppp entry of ‘Aufersteh’n’ (‘Rise again’). This is basically Klopstock’s Resurrection chorale but in fact only the first section of the text is Klopstock’s since Mahler added a number of lines of his own. It all ends with the utterance ‘I shall die in order to live!’ which was a chilling prediction of Mahler’s own fate as an artist!

In the finale the chorus’s pianissimo first entry is truly thrilling. There is the mezzo-soprano’s final solo (‘O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube’ – ‘Believe, my heart, o believe!’) and then soloists and chorus unite as the symphony is brought to a gloriously joyful and valedictory conclusion. The final overwhelming ‘message’ of Mahler’s symphonic testament is that no matter who your ‘God’ may be, no one should fear his or her own ‘Day of Judgement’ to come.

About two years ago, a full page in the programme at the Royal Festival Hall for Gilbert Kaplan’s last London concert announced the recent ‘première’ recording by Deutsche Grammophon of ‘the new official score’ of Mahler’s Second Symphony with the same conductor and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Literature was available on the night from the music publishers (Universal Edition) and The Kaplan Foundation about ‘this new release … (and) ... new performance material on the night.’ Kaplan, of course, was conducting the Philharmonia, he was signing copies of the CD release after the performance, interviews had been published in the national press, he gave an enlightening pre-concert lecture about Mahler, he had written an informative programme note – but nowhere – no where – in what could be read ‘on the night’ was there anything to make anyone expect they were not hearing that new version. There was a full house present with a considerable number definitely also under this similar misapprehension. It transpired that it was the ‘regular’ version of the Resurrection Symphony (albeit with a few tweaks) that had been being played. The inability to obtain the required orchestral parts was cited but was hardly credible. In fact Seen & Heard’s own editor (Marc Bridle) was one of the few to be let into this ‘secret’ because in an interview with Gilbert Kaplan prior to this event the conductor revealed the concert with the Philharmonia was not to be the new edition because ‘The recording with the Vienna Philharmonic was made by entering about 500 corrections into their parts, and it’s the feeling … that the first live performance should be with printed parts.’ It was clear that DG had made the best of its marketing opportunity.

So about two years later on 18 October we were now at the Royal Albert Hall with Gilbert Kaplan, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and presumably ‘printed parts’ for positively the ‘World Premi
ère Performance of the Revised Critical Edition‘ and DG was on show once again with a signing session by the conductor at the end of the concert.

Having described the background to the Symphony and this concert I cannot unfortunately give an academic discourse on the changes in the music. There are really no new melodies here and as the programme says it just involves ‘wrong notes, omitted notes, notes mistakenly assigned to the wrong instrument, wrong tempo indications, inaccurate dynamics, missing accents, misplaced crescendos and diminuendos, and confusing instructions’. These cover some 41 pages of a report that often has 20 or more comments per page. Kaplan and his co-editor Renate Stark-Voit consulted 14 original sources and Mahler’s own score ‘reworked’ until 1910, within a year of his premature death.

What of the concert you ask? — What we heard played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra should have been the way Mahler wanted us to hear it after more than 20 years fine-tuning the score. However, this was undermined by Kaplan’s adherence to a fairly inflexible plodding tempo, a certain imbalance in the orchestral sound (at least from the Stalls) between a more vibrant brass and woodwind compared to duller strings. (There was also a strange right-sided bias to his conducting as he rarely seemed to turn towards his violins.) Worst of all was a sloppiness of ensemble at times and a woeful brass entry from on high in the final movement, as well as, other occasional shaky notes (Mahler would not have countenanced in any version of his score) in both the brass and woodwind on stage throughout the evening.

So despite the painstaking approach to producing this Revised Critical Edition there obviously had been a lack of rehearsal, or too many inexperienced orchestral players were making up the ranks of the 115 involved in the concert.

The first three movements were rather sterile, episodic and lacked musical fluidity but hopes that it all would be ‘redeemed’ came with that entry of the human voice and ‘Urlicht’, strongly sung by Karen Cargill. Alas there really was to be no ‘salvation’ for the audience despite the magnificent sound generated by four choirs (Philharmonia Chorus, Crouch End, Brighton and Southend Festival Choruses) along with the expansive interjections of soprano Sally Matthews. As I wrote in my review of the Royal Festival Hall Kaplan concert –
‘the entire Finale was tremendously exciting particularly since Kaplan had the Chutzpah to leave the 450 strong choirs seated until they rose dramatically for their final ‘Auferstehn’ but, realistically, that was more due to Mahler than the conductor’ – I find no reason to change this view.

I assume other orchestras will adopt this officially sanctioned score and we will hear it soon better performed under a (dare I say it?) better conductor. Do not doubt my admiration for everything Gilbert Kaplan has achieved in life for himself and Mahler but he is a bit obsessed (there is no other word) with this work and thinks he has come as close as possible to the way Mahler would have wanted it heard and would, no doubt, have conducted it, or so he thinks.

Mahler probably made changes to this Second Symphony over, and between, the 10 times he conducted it in public. That was how he thought it should sound at that time but who knows where later revisions (had the composer lived longer) would have taken this symphony. (Wagner died still believing he owed the world his Tannhäuser, a work he had originally composed nearly 40 years earlier and he was still not happy with.) Kaplan undermined this project when he said that Mahler wanted every performance he gave to be special and like a festival event. So for me what he tried to do was like the restoration of an Old Master painting from a dirty cracked and timeworn original. Yes, it had very bright colours and lines, it was all clean and tidy but some detail has undoubtedly been lost and an idea of a masterpiece with the accretion of the ages arriving in a direct line for reinterpretation had also been lost. If you recreate something is that truly ‘Art’? No matter how steeped Kaplan is in the work, it remained just a fine facsimile and not an original.

And to show evidence of Gilbert Kaplan’s total submission to Mahler’s instructions we had that 5-minute pause I mentioned earlier … and what happened? Well poor stage management resulted in unwelcome applause for conductor and soloists that, with the almost obligatory earlier coughing, shattered the concentration built up by the duality of ‘Sunshine and Clouds’ in the first movement the conductor talked so much about. Mahler possibly would not have been pleased – and in a simple grave in Grinzing, a suburb of Vienna, a spinning sound might have been heard.

© Dr Jim Pritchard


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