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SEEN AND HEARD CONCERT REVIEW
This concert marked the start of a European tour by The Cleveland Orchestra, lasting until 2 November. The tour also takes in concerts in Cardiff, Cologne, Brussels, Luxembourg, Friedrichshaven and, finally, a four-concert residency at the Musikverein, Vienna, their third biennial residency there. In Cologne and Vienna they will repeat this Mahler symphony, working, as here, with an indigenous choir. I see from their website that they gave the concert at home in Cleveland on 11 and 13 October so the interpretation would have been nicely settled prior to arrival in Birmingham.
The orchestra appeared with their Music Director, Franz Welser-Möst, now in post since 2002. It may be remembered that he endured an often-torrid time at the hands of the critics when he served as Music Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1990-1996). With hindsight that appointment probably came too early in his career. Since then, however, he’s gone on to achieve success both on the concert platform and in the opera house. He’s been associated with the Zurich Opera since 1995 and becomes General Music Director of the Vienna Staatsoper in 2010. Right from the start he impressed with the clarity of his beat, the lack of fussiness in his gestures and his evident control over the orchestra.
‘Resurrection’ is probably the most theatrical of Mahler’s symphonies. It was only after attending this Birmingham performance that I read a review by Jim Pritchard of a London performance given last week. In his notice Jim put forward the view that “Mahler performances are at their best when it is remembered that Mahler was a ‘man of opera’” and though that opinion might not hold true for the whole Mahler symphonic canon I think there’s a good deal in it a propos this particular symphony.
The first thing that must be said about this performance is that the orchestral playing was of the highest possible order. The discipline was fantastic – George Szell would have been proud – and the sheer weight of tone that the orchestra produces, whether playing full out or pianissimo, is quite breathtaking. The celli and basses provide a magnificent foundation to the string choir and the violins combine brightness at the top of their range with richness lower down. The woodwind section is superb; as are the horns, and the brass have that brightness and power that the best American orchestras always seem to possess in abundance. Mention must also be made of the tremendously incisive percussion section, two timpanists and three other players. This latter trio were kept very busy throughout the evening, moving frequently from one set of instruments to another, and including some excursions offstage in the finale, without ever missing a beat.
The first movement, marked Allegro maestoso, is a huge funeral march. Indeed, Mahler called an earlier version of this movement Totenfeier (Funeral Rites). Franz Welser-Möst adopted quite a brisk speed for this movement, imparting urgency to the music. However, I felt that his basic tempo was just a notch too fast and as a result the music lacked sufficient breadth and weight. Thrillingly though the orchestra played, I felt that the last degree of tension was missing. Interestingly, as we were leaving the hall afterwards my wife and I shared our initial reactions and the very first comment she made, without any prompting from me, was that the first movement had been too brisk.
A few minutes into the movement, the more lyrical second episode begins. The playing hereabouts was absolutely gorgeous but Welser-Möst seemed disinclined to linger around the little expressive corners which punctuate this section. One doesn’t want the conductor to wallow or pull the music about but I’d have welcomed a little more ‘give’ at certain points. The second half of the movement was very exciting and the music was stunningly projected by the orchestra but, of course, the basic pulse was consistent and therefore, to me, a bit too fast. To be sure, urgency and drama were imparted but paradoxically a touch more breadth would have conveyed even more urgency and tension. The movement was dispatched in approximately nineteen minutes. That, I would say, is on the fleet side and a quick check, made subsequently, revealed that most recordings in my collection, led by a diverse collection of conductors, come in at around the 21:00 mark except, oddly, for Klemperer in his 1962 EMI recording. I was a little surprised to be reminded that he takes just over 19:00. I do think that Jim Pritchard’s point about theatricality is apposite and, for me, Welser-Möst somewhat understated this highly dramatic movement in a rather clinical reading.
In the score Mahler specifies a break of five minutes after the first movement. I can’t recall hearing this observed in concert and I think conductors are wise to ignore this injunction for there’s a huge risk of breaking the cumulative tension of the performance. On this occasion Welser-Möst paused for about a minute only, which I’m sure was right. Sadly, some unthinking members of the audience started to clap as the two solo singers made their entry at this point. What a shame that the hall management didn’t think to make an announcement before the performance began asking for applause to be withheld until the very end.
The second movement, Andante moderato, flowed easily and naturally. The strings played the opening paragraphs quite wonderfully, with ravishing tone. The playing was exquisitely pointed and the collective singing tone of the cello section particularly caught my ear. The very end of the movement was delivered with the utmost finesse. There was more highly refined playing to savour in the opening pages of the third movement, and later on, when the uproar of the finale is anticipated, the playing was hugely exciting. I thought that Welser-Möst displayed exemplary control in these two movements.
The four-note phrase, ‘O Röschen rot!’ with which the mezzo-soprano soloist begins the fourth movement is deceptively simple but the singer is completely exposed. Bernarda Fink invested these four notes with all the expressive quality that one could wish to hear without overdoing anything. It was just right. Singing in this movement from memory, she gave a compelling and very beautiful performance. Her delivery was extremely communicative and very involving. I’ve heard her on disc and on radio before but never ‘live’ and I was captivated by her singing, not least by her lustrous tone.
And then, after the tranquillity of ‘Urlicht’, all hell breaks loose as Mahler unleashes his vision of Judgement Day. In this vast orchestral fresco the corporate and individual virtuosity of the orchestra was even more apparent than had been the case throughout the symphony to date. Though there are some truly apocalyptic moments in this movement, each one of which was thrust home with great power, there are many passages that demand subtlety of touch from the players. These too were superbly realised. The offstage brass, placed in the wings either side of the conductor, made a telling effect.
Eventually Mahler has to go further than ‘mere’ instruments and he introduces the human voice. The first entry of the Birmingham chorus was perfectly judged. Their singing was hushed but not so quiet as to preclude definition. They sang from memory, which was great to see. In addition it had been decided that they would remain seated to sing until near the very end of the piece. This worked splendidly, avoiding any risk of distraction, which might have occurred if the choir had stood during a quiet passage of music.
The soloists come into their own at the passage beginning ‘O! glaube mein Herz’. Once again Bernarda Fink sang superbly and when Malin Hartelius joined her she sang with equal distinction. To deliver the final apotheosis the choir stood. At this point the huge orchestra was playing flat out but the choir projected over them effortlessly. Of course, they’ve sung this music many times, not least under Simon Rattle’s baton, and it certainly showed. With a final blaze of brass and a clamour of gongs and bells the symphony came to a tumultuous end and the large audience erupted, clearly stirred and excited by the performance – and rightly so.
Despite my reservations about the first movement, which seemed a little too objective, the performance as a whole was enormously impressive. The Cleveland Orchestra here justified its reputation as one of America’s great orchestras. There are many fine orchestras scheduled to visit Symphony Hall in the 2007/8 season but I doubt if the virtuosity of the Clevelanders will be surpassed easily. A memorable experience.