is an unusual 'Resurrection' in several respects. First, it
is conducted by Semyon Bychkov who, as far as I know, does not
have much of a track record in this repertoire. That said I
heard him direct a compelling Mahler 2 with the Orchestre de
Paris, so that need not be a drawback. Second, this set contains
both audio and video versions of the same performance (two CDs
and a DVD) in a double gatefold case. A neat idea, one might
surmise, but there is one more thing that makes this set stand
out – an electronic ‘visualisation’
of the score on a massive screen behind the orchestra. Not unique
of course, as I remember Simon Rattle and the CBSO attempted
something similar with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.
comparison's sake I have chosen Michael Gielen’s set, recorded
with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg in
1996 (Hänssler CD 93.001). Admittedly it is not live but since
both recordings feature German radio orchestras it does at least
represent something of a level playing field.
Cologne concert, taped on New
Year's Day 2006, is a strange affair. The opening bars are less
brooding than usual, an impression reinforced by the rather
narrow soundstage and dry, Barbican-like acoustic. It also becomes
clear at the first climax (2:08) that this is going to
be a performance of extremes, with somewhat overdriven tuttis
and an overactive bass.
eschews this bipolar approach, opting instead for a genuinely
fresh and appealing reading of this marvellous Wunderhorn symphony.
Even in the strange, funereal first movement Gielen’s attention
to phrasing and pointing makes Bychkov and his band sound almost
crude by comparison. Even allowing for the fact that the latter
is a live recording the playing is not nearly as characterful
as the former. Nor does it have that all-important sense of
an overarching structure that characterises the most successful
performances of this huge score.
on Bychkov finds little of the delicacy that suffuses the Andante,
whereas Gielen really emphasises its wistful charm. And where
Gielen’s Ländler has a pleasing, echt-Mahlerian
lilt, Bychkov and his players never quite seem to capture that
same sense of rhythmic felicity. Of course Gielen has the advantage
of a superior recording and a warmer acoustic but even that
can’t disguise the enormous disparity between these interpretations.
the same dichotomy applies to the third movement, 'Im ruhig
fliessender Bewegung'. Where Gielen’s band achieves the flowing
line Mahler asks for, Bychkov’s comes across as a series of
disjunct paragraphs. And the occasional imprecision doesn't
help matters much. As always these inaccuracies count for little
if the performance is in any way exceptional but in this case
they seem to be symptomatic of a performance that simply doesn’t
have the courage of its convictions. Even that orchestral outburst
than begins at 8:08 seems more of a rhetorical
flourish than a genuine cry of despair.
wonderfully poised 'Urlicht’ ('Primal Light') is a turning point
in this symphony. This plea for acceptance into heaven demands
a purity of tone and a sure sense of vocal line. Not surprisingly
many contraltos come unstuck here; Cornelia Kallisch for Gielen
is heartfelt, ardent, Yvonne Naef for Bychkov much less so;
thankfully, though, neither is as vibrato laden as some on record.
This sublime movement ought to be deeply moving and when the
accompaniment is at its most basic – glockenspiel, clarinet,
harp, solo violins and two piccolos – it also needs to be at
its most chamber-like and transparent. Once again Gielen proves
the more sympathetic interpreter, soloist and orchestra bringing
a real sense of rapture to this most glorious music.
Bychkov really unleashes the percussion at the start of the
scherzo. And now it’s time for another gripe; the Arthaus set
breaks after 'Urlicht' whereas other sets usually do so after
the symphony’s first movement. A minor irritation, I know, but
one misses the sudden but necessary contrast between the dying
notes of ‘Urlicht’ and the seismic upheaval that follows. It's
an extraordinary transition and Gielen, with more of a sense
of proportion and scale, pitches his climax superbly. There
is also a keen sense of anticipation and growing wonderment
that simply eludes Bychkov and his band. Just listen to that
yearning resurrection motif at 5:48 under Gielen and you will
hear why the chasm between these two performances yawns so wide.
famous percussion-led crescendo has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer
under Bychkov but at this point his performance is rapidly losing
focus anyway. The abundance of orchestral detail is simply lost
in the lapses of ensemble and the airless recording. And his
combined NDR and WDR choruses are surely much too muted at their
first entry; even the shout of 'Bereite dich' lacks all conviction.
There is awe and majesty afoot here but Bychkov's singers really
don't suggest much of that. His soloists are not particularly
well blended either and the soprano, Karina Gauvin, sounds rather
strained just when she ought to be at her most ecstatic.
steers a steady but resolute course as the finale unfolds. Admittedly
the organ is not particularly powerful but it makes rather more
of an impact than it does under Bychkov. This is really where
Hänssler scores in a big way, with a marvellous, sumptuous recording
that allows one to revel in all the detail and grandeur of this
great apotheosis. Bychkov presses into the finale by simply
cranking up the volume. And where did he find those peculiar,
jangling bells? Altogether a disappointing end to a great symphony
but, in fairness, Bychkov is up against some stiff competition
from the likes of Gielen and, most recently, David Zinman and
his Zurich band.
In the light of
this performance I approached the DVD with trepidation. I simply
couldn’t understand why anyone would want to make something
of a multimedia event out of this symphony but the 48 minutes
of bonus material is illuminating, if not entirely persuasive.
There is some fascinating background, including an interview
with Bychkov and a documentary about the making of ‘Vision Mahler’.
At the heart of
it all is German artist and researcher Johannes Deutsch (b.
1960) and a company called Ars Electronica Futurelab Linz. According
to the booklet the latter specialises in ‘digital art and media
culture’. It goes on to describe the visualisation process thus:
‘A computer cluster generated in real time the digital content
for the stereoscopic visuals projected on to the panoramic screen
in the concert hall, whereby sensors registered the musical
impulses that directly controlled the graphic elements.’
So far so good.
As the documentary makes clear this visualisation is not as
random or merely mechanical as it may sound. In fact Deutsch
created thousands of individual objects/shapes, which would
be animated on the huge screen. Not only that but the audience
was supplied with 3D spectacles that would enhance the experience
even further. (The DVD visualisation is full-screen.)
In his pre-performance talk Deutsch explains
that he is trying to create a bridge between music and the emotions;
cue shots of the bemused burghers of Köln in cardboard 3D specs,
looking for all the world like an audience at a 1950s B movie.
Bychkov endorses the whole project in a short interview and
is clearly enthusiastic about it all. Elsewhere a WDR executive
talks about this as more than just an experiment … it is the
future of music.
So, how does it
work in practice? I wasn’t sure what to expect; was it going
to be a throwback to the psychedelic cinema of the 1960s – remember
the famous ‘stargate sequence’ in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space
Odyssey – or some Fantasia-style animation to music?
Actually, it’s neither. If anything the crystalline shapes of
the first movement are more reminiscent of a slowly turning
kaleidoscope. The shapes, in a variety ofcolours, react to the
musical pulses in a strangely mesmeric way. In 3D it is probably
even more absorbing as the shapes merge and tumble through space.
Space is the operative
word here as we move into the happier world of the Andante,
where the shapes become more fluid and infused with tinctures
of gold and amber. They suggest the sort of stellar images one
might find in a book of Hubble photographs, with distant nebulae,
exploding stars and whirling galaxies. These are replaced by
a distant moon-like ‘planet’ in ‘Urlicht’. The eye is unerringly
drawn to it, as if to a distant gateway. As the symphony draws
to a close the ‘perfect circle’ returns and grows ever nearer
until at the final peroration we pass through it and, one assumes,
into a world beyond.
As a straight performance
the Bychkov is disappointing. That said, the PCM audio track
on the DVD is rather fuller and more detailed than the CD, which
improves the overall perception of the concert just a little.
The DVD has plenty of interesting bonus material for the technically
minded and the booklet is pretty chunky too. Don’t be misled
by the ‘Virtual score’ though, as that’s just the visualisation
with bite-sized explanations at the bottom of your screen.
Surprisingly I rather
enjoyed the ‘Vision Mahler’ aspect, although I expect many will
dismiss it as just another gimmick. It’s certainly a very complex
and time-consuming process, so I can’t imagine it would ever become
commonplace. Still, it’s a bold and interesting package that could
well appeal to some music-lovers, but if it’s the symphony you’re
after there are many more satisfying versions to choose from.