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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1894)
Karina Gauvin (soprano); Yvonne Naef (contralto)
WDR Sinfonieorchester, NDR Chor, WDR Rundfunkchor Köln/Semyon Bychkov
Johannes Deutsch, Ars Electronica Linz (visual realisation)
rec. Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne, Germany, 1 January 2006.
DVD: Region 0; NTSC; 16:9; PCM stereo; DD 5.1.
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 421 CD [44:11 + 36:10]; [87:00 + 48:00 bonus]

This 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.

For 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. 

The 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. 

Gielen 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. 

Moving 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. 

Broadly 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. 

The 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. 

Predictably 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. 

The 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. 

Gielen 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.

Dan Morgan



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