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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’ (1888/94, rev. 1905)
Anja Harteros (soprano), Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks,
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks / Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 13 & 15 May 2011, Philharmonie, Munich
Sung texts not included
BR KLASSIK 900167 [80.56]

Mariss Jansons conducted Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 2, ‘Resurrection’, with the renowned Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Chorus, in May 2011. These concerts were significant events in the Bavaria capital. I was in the audience reporting from one of this pair of ‘sold out’ Philharmonie concerts that resulted in a long line of people queuing for returned tickets. The DVD/Blu-ray filmed at these concerts has already been released on Arthaus and now BR Klassik has issued the performance on a single CD. This recording is also included in the eleven-CD set of the Mahler Symphonies 1-9 on BR Klassik, which I recently reviewed. The Philharmonie concert opened with Mahler’s Rückert-LiedIch bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ in Clytus Gottwald’s rarely performed arrangement for sixteen unaccompanied voices. This can be heard on the DVD/Blu-ray but unfortunately, at around seven minutes, it could not fit on this single CD.
Mahler laboured long and hard over the period 1888/94 on his Symphony No. 2 for soprano and contralto soloists, mixed chorus and orchestra, making a revision in 1905. At the time Mahler wrote the score, he was still establishing himself as a conductor and normally composed in his spare time, mainly during summer vacations. Known universally as the ‘Resurrection’, this substantial symphony lasts around eighty minutes in this Jansons performance. Trust and empathy between an orchestra and conductor often take time to develop, if they develops at all, but here the strength of the relationship between the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and its chief conductor Mariss Jansons is palpable. Straight away in the opening movement,the assurance and sheer power of this accomplished Bavaria orchestra is striking. I remember feeling the sheer force of sound pushing me back into my seat at the opening of the actual concert, and I can still strongly sense a special energy in this recording. Jansons expertly obtains a satisfying contrast of grey, solemn expression from the movement’s predominant funereal character, alternating with exhilarating heroic qualities. Throughout the movement, the playing of the Bavaria orchestra is of an elevated quality and is intensely satisfying.

The exquisitely scored second movement, marked Andante moderato, is relatively light and good-natured. In Jansons’ hands, the waltz-like opening feels as if it comes from a mid-nineteenth century dance hall in Vienna. Such elegance is brought out of the writing with abundant fine detail. Stark antithesis is provided by the near-mocking episode, which has unsettling agitation and vigour. It’s fascinating to hear the guitar-like strumming of the violins and violas, and the pizzicato section from the cellos is a delight also.

Two robust timpani strokes that sound like gunshots announce the opening of the Scherzo. The writing draws on the captivating melody from Mahler’s Wunderhorn song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (St. Anthony's Sermon to the Fishes). Reminiscent of a klezmer band, the schmoozing clarinet solo is a characteristic Mahlerian reference to Jewish folk music. Strikingly potent energy is released in Mahler’s terrible scream of anguish that puts a brisk halt to the bucolic frolicking. Urlicht (Primeval Light) is the title of the fourth movement and derives from one of Mahler’s own Wunderhorn songs. A major highlight is the glorious entrance of the mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink in the meditative writing that commences with the words O Röschen rot! (O Red Rose!), in which she decalres her yearning for respite from world weariness. In excellent vocal condition, Fink sounds in total control displaying, attractive timbre and supple projection. Following on closely is the rather brief and spiritually affecting Chorale, intoned so splendidly on the brass.

The lengthy final movement opens with Mahler’s terrible scream of anguish. It produces here such a tremendous weight of sound that it feels terrifying before it decays into mere dust. I have become more used to the sound of the off-stage band, an effect which is always difficult to balance. Confidently led by the biting brass and percussion battery, more shattering climaxes follow close behind. There is a distinct martial quality to the brass fanfares interrupted only by tetchy woodwind and angry percussion. Off-stage brass linger in a lament interspersed with birdsong on the flute and piccolo. The entry of the large mixed chorus with the words Auferstehn, ja aufersteh'n wirst du (Rise again, yes rise again you will) is so mellow and tender as to have a quite spellbinding impact. The text O glaube, mein Herz (O believe, my heart), sung by soprano Anja Harteros sounds magical,,and her captivating tone feels satisfyingly smooth and secure. Both Harteros and Fink combine with the chorus in the words O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer! (O suffering! All pervading). With singing of such extraordinary quality from the impeccably matched soloists, together with compellingly spiritual tones from the chorus, one can be excused for thinking they have been transported to paradise. The final section begins with the familiar Viennese-like string sound but soon draws in the massed forces, including organ and percussion battery. Jansons holds together the earth-shattering climax wonderfully.

This live recording from the Philharmonie is highly impressive. It is clear, with fine presence and a particularly satisfying balance. I struggled to hear any significant audience noise and the applause at the conclusion has been left out. As I have come to expect, Jörg Handstein’s booklet essay contains plenty of helpful information and is a delight to read.

My benchmark recording of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony is Bernard Haitink’s magnificent recording with Staatskapelle Dresden, recorded live in 1995 at Semperoper, Dresden on Profil. Under Mariss Jansons everything feels remarkably right, from climaxes of sonic proportions to the high strings playing the softest pianissimo. I find this an exceptional performance and one that provides Haitink with the stiffest competition.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Dan Morgan



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