RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor Resurrection (1894) [95:42]
Sarah Connolly (mezzo); Christiane Oelze (soprano)
MDR Rundfunkchor; Berliner Rundfunkchor; Gewandhauschor
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly
rec. live, Gewandhaus zu Leipzig, 17-18 May 2011
Director: Henning Kasten
Picture: 16:9, full HD
Sound: PCM stereo, dts-HD Master Audio Surround
Region: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: German, English, French
ACCENTUS ACC 10238 BLU-RAY [95:42]
Having reviewed a slew of Twos on CD over the past few months I decided I had to make room for this much-lauded Blu-ray from Leipzig. Recorded as part of the 2011 International Mahler Festival it’s one of two video recordings from that event – the other is Chailly’s Mahler Eight – available on both DVD and Blu-ray. Up until now EuroArts has had something of a monopoly on this repertoire, having given us most of the Abbado cycle from Lucerne and the Boulez Mahler 2 from Berlin. Despite some technical issues with the Abbado Blu-rays, it’s a fine collection and a worthy companion to Leonard Bernstein’s quirky set of DVDs from Universal.
As far as the Resurrection itself is concerned, I’ve always felt it one of Abbado’s weaker efforts, on both CD and video, and I have some misgivings about the Boulez DVD as well. The Bernstein – recorded in Ely Cathedral in 1972 – is vintage Lenny, but the dizzying camerawork is a major distraction. Some viewers may also object to his jittery podium presence, but for sheer exaltation Bernstein is in a class of his own. Interpretatively, the video outshines his later, audio-only remake for DG, by which time creeping self-indulgence overwhelms all insight. By contrast, Riccardo Chailly’s Decca CD set is much more sensible which, for me at least, all too often means dull. Will this live performance from Leipzig be any different, I wonder?
First impressions are very favourable; from the conductor’s slashing downbeat to the final, dying note of the first movement one is cosseted by playing – and sonics – of rare elegance and beauty. Chailly adopts sensible speeds and tempo relationships are nicely judged; the almost holographic sound – in stereo at least – really brings out the sting of cymbals and bray of brass. As for the woodwinds, they’re immaculate, timps crisp and powerful, the harps finely etched. And all the while there’s a pleasing sense of progress, the music artfully shaped without seeming self-consciously so. The camerawork is discreet and intuitive, visuals the epitome of clarity and naturalness.
A cracking start, then, and the most sense-sating Mahler video I’ve yet encountered. Textures are rendered with great subtlety, and despite the relative intimacy of the angular auditorium there’s plenty of room for the music to grow and blossom, everything from ppp to sfz easily accommodated. And listen out for those dark, barely audible tam-tam strokes, just some of the many ear-caressing moments that permeate this performance. True, there’s no risk-taking here, but there are no mannered, self-regarding gestures either. Chailly is admirably ‘straight’, old fashioned even, and yet his reading is full of unexpected charm and character.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the beautifully calibrated Andante; dance rhythms are deftly done, Mahler’s gentle pizzicati miracles of finesse and feeling. This really is a most distinguished orchestra, the chromium-plated delivery of the Lucerners – impressive as it is – no match for the rich, woody patina that comes with age and tradition. And lest one think this band is too cultured for its own good the Scherzo is full of animation and, in a moment of pure theatre, that final beat of the gong is allowed to resonate for what seems like ages.
Mezzo Sarah Connolly’s ‘Urlicht’, infinitely varied, is an absolute joy, the warmth and ease of her singing a perfect fit in this most cultured company. As for Chailly, his restraint is most welcome here, every last nuance and change of metre well caught; as a result of this reticence, the orchestral detonations of the last half-hour or so are all the more seismic. At times it seems as if the music is coming from the very bowels of the earth – apt, given the impending arrival of the Last Trump and the pit-like design of the auditorium – the soft-grained chorus rising above the tumult.
Chailly may not have the galvanising energy of his rivals at this point, but his broad, unhurried pace engenders a thrill of its own. Soprano Christiane Oelze’s steely, but steady, tones are a decent foil to Connolly’s more rounded ones, and I’ve rarely heard the choirs’ ‘Bereite dich’ delivered with such hope and trepidation. Once or twice, the playing is a tad untidy, but that’s forgivable under the circumstances. Chailly’s habit of holding back really pays dividends in the closing pages where, as Donne would have it, the all-embracing sound seems to emanate from the ‘round earth’s imagin’d corners’. The brass scythes through the mix – as it should do – and the organ adds plenty of heft; as for the bells and tam-tams, they’re just sensational, every strand of the score delivered with clarity and punch.
Dull this ‘Resurrection’ most certainly isn’t, and I came away from it with renewed admiration for maestro Chailly. There’s so much to cherish in this performance, from the burnished playing and deeply felt singing to the fine picture and unrivalled sound. Indeed, if I were awarding stars for sonics this would easily be a five out of five; it’s every bit as immersive as the Decca Blu-ray of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, which I reviewed last year. Purely as a performance – and I’m thinking of recent CDs as well – Chailly’s is a thoroughly satisfying alternative to those visceral, more urgent accounts from Jonathan Nott, James Levine and Simone Young; but if we’re talking DVD or Blu-ray, this newcomer sweeps the board.