Mahler - Symphony N°2, "Resurrection"

Paris, Théâtre du Châtelet - April 26 2004

Conductor: Esa-Pekke Salonen. Philharmonia Orchestra. London Philharmonic Choir. Ruth Ziesak, soprano. Charlotte Hellekant, alto.

Should I be reviewing this concert? Probably not, but one or two people asked me to. I am not, as some of you may have noticed, a Mahler fan. But I booked this concert thinking that, perhaps, the Philharmonia under a famous conductor might work some kind of epiphany on me and that finally I'd understand. It didn't happen. I won't say exactly what went through my mind at various stages during this long piece, as I don't want to offend the many Mahler lovers around; let's just say it didn't include the word "profound" and that I have a Mahler problem.

Before writing, I tried to find reviews of Salonen in the same work, to check if my opinion found echos in LA or London. I found only one, which, while highly positive overall, did hint at a similar impression to mine. I'll give two quotes:

"In Disney, this small detail — the low, buzzing sound of rapacious death — was but one of thousands of other instrumental details that subtly, and not so subtly, enhanced the drama."

"And yet there was, for this listener, the slightest letdown at the end. It might have reflected a taste, after years of hearing this symphony at the Chandler, for having the brass blow their collective brains out and the cellos and basses reach near apoplexy as intrepid musicians try to surmount inadequate acoustics. No one could be accused of holding back on this occasion, but there was a sense of Salonen and the players not wanting to go too far in such an exposed environment. Like a new high-performance car with an excess of horsepower, Disney clearly (and wisely) makes its drivers initially cautious."

Salonen was well received at the Châtelet on Tuesday, but my neighbour, though applauding loudly, admitted to being a little perplexed ("I'd need to listen to it again," she said), and so did someone also present I talked to the next day. This was not quite the Mahler they expected, and that may explain the scattered boos that darkened the enthusiastic applause. (In any case, that grandiose Salvation Army choral ending is calculated to win over an audience.) Salonen's Mahler is "Mahler the 20th century Viennese," ushering in the second Viennese school, not "Mahler the late romantic." It looks forward to Shostakovich, not back to Bruckner and Brahms.

Clearly, he's given a great deal of thought to each note and deliberately stripped the work of any Schmaltz. The performance was meticulously detailed, I would say to the point of being clinical and to the detriment of the sense of overall form that Boulez, often criticised for being too cool in Mahler, would no doubt have achieved. To my ear, it sounded cold, angular and disjointed, and the remorseless detailing verged on the irritating and obsessive.

But this was not caution; it was calculated restraint. The Philharmonia was rigorously reined in: we had to wait until the scherzo to hear their full power for the first time. However, their virtuosity in rapid, complex pianissimo passages, played at a whisper yet with the frequent portamenti perfectly together, was amazing, as was their perfect ensemble in rubato: a single instrument.

The London Philharmonic choir were possibly too far back, possibly a little under-sized for the orchestra, but they too sang their pianissimi beautifully. Charlotte Hellekant has an interesting, edgy alto voice one would like to hear again. Ruth Ziesak may have been suffering from stage terror: the programme notes claimed she sings Sophie in Rosenkavalier, yet the hardly-very-high notes Mahler asked of her on Tuesday were beyond her ability.

I suppose now you'll all tell me, like the lady on another website defending Bocelli, that I can't have a very good ear for music. "He has perfect pitch. End of argument."

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