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Three Choirs Festival 2010 (2) - Mahler, Symphony No 2 in C Minor, ‘Resurrection’: Ailish Tynan (soprano); Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano); Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra; Ashley Grote (organ); Jac van Steen,  Gloucester Cathedral 8.8.2010 (JQ)

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahler and the Three Choirs Festival joined in the celebrations by putting on this performance of the ‘Resurrection’ symphony. A guest conductor was engaged in the shape of the Dutch conductor, Jac van Steen. The choice of Mr van Steen proved not to be a sound one; it was inspired.

From the very first downbeat van Steen exuded authority. I had a seat about eight rows from the front and this enabled me to observe him at fairly close quarters. He has an excellent stick technique: I found that whenever I looked elsewhere and then looked at him again I could tell invariably exactly where he was in the bar. Add to that a multitude of clear cues to the orchestra and gestures that were inspirational without being excessively flamboyant and I would imagine he must have been a joy to play for. Certainly the Philharmonia reacted to his direction with enthusiasm. It was evident that the conductor had an intimate knowledge of the score but, more than that, he also had a clear vision of it and he directed proceedings with energy and a clear sense of where he was going. It’s a complex score and the first and last movements are huge structures but never once did I feel that van Steen’s grip faltered.

He wasn’t as daring in his choice of tempi as, say, Klaus Tennstedt but he wasn’t afraid to give the music space. I can honestly say that throughout the ninety-minute span of the work I didn’t note a single instance where I thought that his choice of tempo was other than exactly right – and he seemed to have got to grips completely with the resonant acoustics of the cathedral.

I suspect that the inevitable constrictions of the platform had obliged the Philharmonia to field a slightly smaller orchestra than would have been the case in, say, the Royal Festival Hall. So far as I could see only triple woodwind was deployed, whereas the score calls for quadruple wind. I could only see three desks of celli – there may have been more players tucked behind one of the cathedral’s great pillars – and I’m not sure that all six double bass players listed in the programme were able to find a perch on the platform. But if the orchestra was a little short on numbers it mattered not in the slightest. This was evident right at the start when the celli and basses intoned the opening march figure with splendid weight and power. This set the tone for a performance during which the orchestra met all of Mahler’s demands triumphantly from the most brazen fortissimo to the most hushed passages. Inspired by their conductor, the orchestra delivered playing of electrifying quality.

Van Steen unfolded the enormous first movement funeral march with great power, though he was admirably sensitive to the more lyrical stretches of music also. There were some huge climaxes but one never felt that these were overdone: van Steen knew the key climaxes lay much further in the future. He obtained some warm string playing at the start of the second movement and chose an excellent speed that enabled him to shape the music while keeping it fluid. It was notable that he frequently encouraged the strings – and the celli in particular – to play their lines with rich, singing tone. The textures were beautifully balanced – a clear sign of the conductor’s control – and time and again van Steen showed his eye for detail. As an example of this the final two pizzicato chords were perfectly placed and delivered with all the delicacy for which one could wish.

The third movement was sharply characterised and the nostalgic trumpet-led episode was lovely. Time and again van Steen and his players brought out the great originality Mahler’s piquant and vivid orchestration. The huge eruption of sound, where Mahler prefigures the start of the last movement, was a thrilling moment. Moving seamlessly into ‘Urlicht’, we heard some marvellously poised, warm singing from Susan Bickley. Miss Bickley’s diction was crystal clear and she sang with great expression and fine control.

Then van Steen unleashed the apocalyptic finale and one felt for a moment as if the gates of Hell had been opened. Over the next thirty-seven minutes van Steen controlled Mahler’s vast, dramatic fresco in sound with impressive skill. This is a tremendously theatrical piece of music and the trick is to bring off the drama without descending into hysteria. Van Steen managed this perfectly. Mahler makes important use of an offstage band of brass and percussion and here the vast spaces of the cathedral were used to great advantage. Van Steen had positioned these players in the north transept – to his left and behind the platform – and the band’s contributions came over clearly yet at a magical distance.

At one point there are two huge, long percussion crescendos, starting from nothing and ending in ear-splitting fortissimo. In this performance this moment was truly awesome: it sounded as if the graves were being thrown open for the dead to march out of them. If one wanted to be hypercritical of the Philharmonia’s playing one might suggest that the percussion were a little overpowering at times in the finale but, to be honest, I don’t think it mattered; as the excitement of the performance mounted the entire audience was just swept along by it, I’m sure.

The grosse Appell – the Great Summons – was superbly done. The distant brass made a telling effect and the flute solo, representing the last living soul, was brilliantly done. The choir’s hushed first entry should be a magical moment – and it was. The Festival Chorus, seated initially and singing from memory, made a fine impression, singing with quiet fervour while the voice of soprano Ailish Tynan soared gently above them. Later, at “O glaube: Du wärst nicht umsonst geboren!” it seemed to me that a few of the notes lay uncomfortably low for her but for the most part her singing was impressive and Susan Bickley maintained the high quality singing that we’d heard in ‘Urlicht’. The passage for the male chorus alone was very well done. The gentlemen sounded properly Germanic and the first tenors rose fearlessly to the challenge of Mahler’s tessitura.

The end, with the whole choir singing “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du” at full tilt was a moment to raise the hairs on the back of ones neck. In a moist effective gesture, van Steen had the four trumpeters from the offstage band standing on the top of the choir screen right above everyone else. What with their playing, a sonorous contribution from Ashley Grote at the cathedral organ, the rest of the Philharmonia at full stretch and the chorus and soloists singing as if their lives depended on it the final pages were overwhelming, as Mahler intended.

If I’m not mistaken, the last time this great symphony was performed at Three Choirs was in 2001 when it was conducted by the wealthy businessman, Gilbert Kaplan, whose obsession with the work had caused him to learn conducting for just this one work. My recollection of that performance was that Kaplan demonstrated his intimate knowledge of the score and his great love for it but that his reading was somewhat careful. What we heard on this occasion was in a different league altogether. The audience in Gloucester cathedral witnessed a masterly demonstration of conducting which motivated all the performers to give of their considerable best and deliver a performance that will long be remembered by all those lucky enough to be present.

With this performance of the ‘Resurrection’ symphony the wild, original genius of Gustav Mahler and the inspirational conducting of Jac van Steen set the 2010 Three Choirs Festival alight.


John Quinn

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