On those very special occasions the excellence of the music and the quality of the playing and live atmosphere can combine to produce something quite special. So it is with this Profil disc.
Every year on 13 February a memorial concert is given in the German city of Dresden to commemorate the anniversary of the terrible World War Two allied air raid carried out in 1945. The night bombing left large tracts of the city in ruins and thousands of people dead. Traditionally a requiem mass has been given at the memorial concert. However, in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Dresden devastation Mahler’s Resurrection was presented. Performed at the Dresden Semperoper this massive score was considered to have the appropriate character to complement the solemn occasion. At these Dresden anniversary concerts it has been the tradition for the audience not to applaud before or after the performance. Instead the audience stand in quiet remembrance before leaving the hall. Incidentally, Haitink also performed the same Mahler score at Rotterdam in 1990 to mark the 50th anniversary of the destruction of the Dutch city by German bombers.
The opening movement originated as a symphonic poem entitled Totenfeier (Funeral Rites). It was composed in 1888. Between 1888 and 1894 Mahler laboured hard on his five movement symphony undertaking revisions in 1905. At the time Mahler was still carving out a name for himself as a conductor so work on the score was confined to his spare time, mainly during his summer holidays. Owing to the progressive nature of the writing, its unconventional design, the extended length and the massive forces Mahler must have hardly dared to imagine that he would ever hear it performed during his lifetime.
The first performance was given at Berlin in 1895 with the composer conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. In this score Mahler attempts to explore the existence of humanity in its entirety using sung text in the final two movements. In the fourth movement the text is from the collection of German folk poetry known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth’s Magic Horn), The fifth movement uses text from Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s ode Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection). Then Mahler uses his own words beginning with O glaube, mein Herz (O believe, my heart). It was the composer’s friend Oskar Fried who first recorded the symphony in 1924 with the Berlin State Opera. The complete version of the Resurrection was introduced in Dresden in 1901 by conductor Ernst von Schuch, general music director of the Staatskapelle Dresden. Maestro Haitink’s stunning live account which was broadcast on the radio has so much going for it. The persuasive Haitink fashions the architecture and space of Mahler’s vast symphony splendidly, avoiding any sense of affectation. This reading feels completely spontaneous. Born in Amsterdam, maestro Haitink brought with him to Dresden a pair of renowned Dutch singers, Margiono and van Nes.
Right from the opening Allegro maestoso the weight, bite and sheer power of the Dresden orchestra is striking. There’s impressive pacing throughout with beautiful playing especially in the more lyrical passages. Although all sections impress I found the stunning playing of the brass and woodwind highly dedicated and perfectly in unison. The exquisitely scored second movement Andante moderato with its gentle Ländler feels so light, poised and elegant. It feels like a mid-nineteenth century dance hall in Vienna. As the music briskly develops in weight the sound produced is remarkable especially from the golden-hued Dresden strings. Towards the conclusion of the movement the swirling strings can make the listener dizzy. When attending a concert I love to watch as well as hear the section with guitar-like strumming by the violins and violas, and the delightful pizzicato from the cellos. Sounding like gunshots the timpani strokes announce the opening of the third movement Scherzo. The writing draws on the captivating melody from Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes). I love the way that Haitink underlines the acerbic sarcasm. In the section reminiscent of a klezmer band the schmoozing clarinet solo has the patina of Jewish folk music. The angry brass outburst is especially striking as is the potency of the pent-up energy released in Mahler’s agonised thrust. This puts a brisk halt to the bucolic frolicking.
Urlicht (Primeval Light) from one of Mahler’s own Wunderhorn songs is the title of the fourth movement. A real highlight is the entrance of Jard van Nes, rich and mellowed toned, commencing with the words O Röschen Rot! (O red rose!). It’s a yearning declaration for respite from world weariness. I believed every word, such was her expressive power and clear diction. Van Nes also has an attractive timbre and supple projection. Following on closely is the rather brief and spiritually affecting chorale. This is intoned splendidly on the brass with woodwind playing of an elevated quality. The final movement Im Tempo des Scherzos, opening with Mahler’s terrible scream of anguish, is given such tremendous weight it feels terrifying before it decays into mere dust. In the ‘wilderness’ section the off-stage brass make a sure impression with the Dies irae chorale followed by blazing brass. The great drum-rolls at 10:06-10:24 are striking and shook me right down to my boots. A distinct martial quality to the brass fanfares is interrupted only by tetchy woodwind and angry percussion. Off-stage brass lingers in a lament interspersed with a flurry of birdsong on flute and piccolo. At 20:39 the Dresden chorus enter with the words Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du (Rise again, yes rise again you will). It feels mellow and tender and makes a spellbinding impact. The text O glaube, mein Herz (O believe, my heart) is sung at 27:28 to magical effect by Charlotte Margiono with her secure technique and appealing tone. Both Margiono and van Nes combine with the heavenly Dresden chorus for the words O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer! (O suffering! All pervading or O all-piercing pain!). With singing of such quality from the impeccably matched soloists and chorus one might be excused for thinking they - and we - had been transported to paradise. The final section begins with the familiar Viennese string sound that soon develops in sheer weight. The massed forces, including organ and percussion battery, combine in a thunderous climax; the most remarkable that I have heard on disc.
Recorded live in 1995 for radio broadcast at the Dresden Semperoper the engineers have produced a warm sound that is clear and well balanced. Although a live recording I struggled to hear any significant audience noise and as I explained earlier there is no applause after the conclusion of the score. I found the substantial Profil booklet notes exemplary being especially highly detailed.
At this poignant 50th anniversary concert the magnificent playing was outstanding right from the high strings playing the softest pianissimo to climaxes of sonically massive proportions.
I have numerous recommended versions of the Resurrection but nothing beats this remarkable Haitink account.
Masterwork Index: Mahler