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Mahler, Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”:  Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome. Conductor: Antonio Pappano. 8.5.2010 (DBG)

Nicole Cabell

Alto: Maria Radner

Chorus Master: Ciro Visco

After a week of “silent” protest activities aimed against the president’s emergency decree imposing tighter governmental regulations on Italian orchestras, the Orchestra and Choir of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia sprang to new life with a stirring performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Prior to the concert, employees were busily distributing scraps of paper reminding patrons that an investment in Italy’s cultural patrimony is “indispensible for the growth of a healthy, rich, and proud society”. By musical standards, it took only ninety minutes to make the case.

The post-strike atmosphere evidently filled Antonio Pappano and members of the orchestra with an enormous amount of confidence in their ability to execute Mahler’s mammoth score with power and grace. Before plummeting into the music, Maestro Pappano addressed the audience briefly to assure them that the “silence” was over (at least for now), adding “Voi suonate con noi”. Surely this was meant to underscore the palpable sense of solidarity that emerged from a trying week, but more importantly it set the tone for the single-minded concentration which is absolutely crucial for a successful experience of the Resurrection Symphony.

The allegro maestoso burst forth with the requisite energy, and the lyrical passages—often overshadowed by the unforgettable frenzy of the double-basses and cellos—were played with such stunning dynamic contrast that the movement could easily have stood on its own according to Mahler’s original intention. Tempos were selected and maintained with great deliberation, varying only when necessary so as to focus attention on Mahler’s ingenious orchestration. Particularly noteworthy in Pappano’s approach was his concern for the actual musical moment rather than the overarching structure of any given movement. In the first movement, he seemed less interested in choosing among competing interpretations of how the middle section should relate to the sonata form than in getting the most out of each and every bar. The result being that this performance highlighted Mahler’s penchant for theme and melody, making him more “Italian” than we may first think. Indeed, the orchestra’s absorption in the poetic quality of the first movement readily conveyed its pride to be the only Italian ensemble to have hosted Mahler as a guest conductor.

The uniqueness of Pappano’s approach equally imbued the second and third movements. The Ländler was presented as a playful experience of life’s joys for the first time rather than as a distant memory. The scherzo gently skipped along with near giddiness without passing over the gentile allusions to folksong appreciated by many listeners. In both the second and third movements, the percussive touches blended smoothly with the symphonic texture to give just a hint of nostalgia in keeping with the themes of death and remembrance. The fourth movement suffered slightly from lagging tempos in the on-stage brass, whereas—except for a few brief moments—the “sounds in the distance” effect worked marvelously well with the off-stage ensemble. Alto Maria Radner displays a rich lower register that gave an uncommon weightiness to lines such as “Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben”. She and American soprano Nicole Cabell share a smooth, rich tone color that added to the stateliness of the interpretation—an intelligent deviation from the angelical timbres which fall short of capturing the mood of the text. The final movement did not fail to deliver the ecstatic sense of relief and glory that even the strongest musicians find hard to muster after a gruelling journey through the first four movements.

Symphony N. 2 inaugurates a two-year festival marking the hundredth and fiftieth anniversary of Mahler’s birth (1860) and the centenary of his death (1911). The program will cover all nine symphonies and the Adagio of his unfinished Tenth. Valery Gergiev, whose Mahler recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra have received high acclaim, will conduct the Fifth Symphony in November of this year and the Seventh in November of 2011. Younger sensations Mikko Franck (Third Symphony) and Andris Nelsons (Fourth Symphony) will also make appearances. The Mahler Festival is solid proof that Italy has definitively shed its reputation as a country resistant to high Romanticism. Over the last several years, Italian concert halls and opera houses have attained such a level of proficiency with the works of Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler that they are not afraid to perform them with a bold, “Mediterranean” originality that does not sacrifice their “Germanic” integrity.

At the same time, hearing a symphony of this scope and magnitude anywhere in the world these days leaves one pondering its place in history and its meaning for the twentieth-first century. Truth be told, a craving for Vivaldi, Handel, and Rameau is still sweeping across Europe, and many young composers continue to strive for maximal economy in structure, form, and tone. Conversely, for all its magnificent power and grandeur, the Resurrection Symphony seems to represent a bygone era when artists, patrons, and audiences thoroughly expected music to match—if not replace—religious aspiration and to transcend national boundaries precisely by embracing the distinctiveness of one’s particular cultural identity. We now live in a very different world.

Mahler, like Beethoven, was driven by the conviction that the divine is much more readily attainable by aesthetic feeling rather than logical argumentation. However, whereas the Ode to Joy celebrates the human spirit’s power to persevere despite suffering and death (Freude heisst die starke Feder in der ewigen Natur), Mahler extols suffering and death as the means to life (Sterben werd’ich, um zu leben!), but only insofar as the human spirit embraces suffering and death precisely by choosing to engage in the struggle of love (Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen in heißem Liebesstreben, werd’ich entschweben). Perhaps such distinctions are too subtle for a piece like the Resurrection Symphony—a piece which is anything but subtle. Nevertheless, a performance this fine forces us to ask why we are so deeply moved by a highly rhetorical work about life after death. Perhaps the search for an answer to that question will give us a clearer idea about why an investment in the cultural heritage of Italy — or any other European nation for that matter  — s “indispensible for the growth of a healthy, rich, and proud society”.

Daniel B. Gallagher


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