Visions of the Resurrection

Jesse Simon

lunes, 7 de enero de 2019
Berlin, jueves, 13 de diciembre de 2018. Philharmonie. Maija Einfelde: Lux aeterna. Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor. Lucy Crowe, soprano. Gerhild Romberger, alto. MDR-Rundfunkchor Leipzig. Berlin Philharmonic. Andris Nelsons, conductor.

When Andris Nelsons brought the Boston Symphony Orchestra to Berlin for a performance of Mahler’s Third earlier this year, it seemed to mark a turning point in his Mahler cycle. The excessive ambition and heightened shifts of mood of his earlier performances had, for the most part, been stripped away; what remained was insight, focus and, in the finest moments, the thrill of hearing a familiar work newly enlivened. Yet even that great performance offered only hints of the grandeur Mr Nelsons would bring to Mahler’s Second, which was not only the finest entry in his cycle but also perhaps the finest Mahler performance in Berlin since Zubin Mehta’s transcendent Ninth a few years ago. With the Berlin Philharmonic sounding as invigorated as they have this season and the lustrous sound of the MDR-Rundfunkchor Leipzig, Mr Nelsons’ vision of the Resurrection was music-making at its most cathartic.

The evening began with Maija Einfelde’s setting of the Lux aeterna for choir, glockenspiel and vibraphone, an intriguing, often beautiful piece in which moments inspired by early polyphony slid unexpectedly into distinctly modern harmonic terrain. It was given an excellent performance by the choir, who brought a strong sense of internal clarity to the more complex part writing and were especially impressive in the rich quiet passages. The contribution of the two percussionists was minimal -the vibraphone did not even make its first appearance until the coda, and the glockenspiel added only understated highlights to the beginning and end- yet their presence seemed so essential that it was impossible to imagine the piece without them.

The first movement of the Mahler began at a very high level of intensity. The violins were agitated, the woodwinds pushed forward with deliberate insistence and the low strings attacked their punctuating phrases with raw vigour. Mr Nelsons has never been one to rush through a symphony, but instead of losing the momentum or making the individual episodes seem disconnected, his pacing served to heighten the tension while also making sure we missed none of the innumerable details from which Mahler fashioned his unique sound world. The climaxes were impressively scaled but never overbearing or loud for the sake of mere effect; yet it was the affection lavished on the hushed, mysterious passages surrounding the violent outbursts that were perhaps the more extraordinary. The distant horns rising from transparent high violins or the idyllic interlude just before the movement’s end left one with the impression not just of hearing a symphony but of being drawn fully into Mahler’s personal mythology.

After a brief pause -longer than normal, if not quite the full five minutes Mahler desired- the second movement began. Again, the pace was slow but with an elegant lilt and a heightened rhythmic drive that made the introductory section sound not unlike a Brucknerian trio slowed to half-speed. The strings were magnificent throughout, peppering the movement with understated glissandi and giving an almost hypnotic quality to the pizzicato section; even at their quietest they had tremendous presence. The third movement was more vigorous but equally delightful, with the rippling animation of the opening moving effortlessly into the more heroic territory of the second part. Gerhild Romberger sang the opening lines of the fourth movement as though completely transfixed, and was answered by a deeply felt -and technically flawless- response from the trumpets.

The best, however, was still to come. The final movement, which accounts for over a third of the symphony’s total length is one of Mahler’s most episodic constructions and one of the most prone to extremes; too much in the way of interpretive moderation can make it seem lifeless, but too much freedom and exuberance can push it into chaos. Mr Nelsons navigated every potential pitfall with total assurance. The first half, up to the first appearance of the choir, was played for maximum excitement. Tense violins and enervated woodwinds created a mood of desolation dispelled only temporarily by the quiet first appearance of the resurrection theme; the unresolved tension of those earlier sections came to a head in a cataclysmic death march, terrifying less for its volume than its ferocity of expression. The offstage bands, perfectly synchronised with the primary action, suggested nothing less than an epic battle from which only the flute escaped unscathed.

The breathlessness and volatility of the first half made the hushed entry of the choir all the more wondrous. The MDR-Rundfunkchor had an ideally balanced sound underpinned by notably rich basses. Lucy Crowe’s soaring solo lines rose from gracefully from the deep concentration of the choir, and the instrumental sections that divided the text were played with a captivating reverence. The ascent to the symphony’s final climax inspired no shortage of awe, but Mr Nelsons never attempted to overwhelm through the power of volume alone. The intensity and conviction in his reading were such that even in the triumphant final moments there remained a lucid balance between the opposing forces of horns, gongs, voices and strings.

Mahler’s Second has enough resilient passages that even an average performance can usually generate a certain level of excitement, however unsubltle. On this evening Mr Nelsons gave us something considerably greater. He managed the difficult task of blending the symphony’s architectural craft and emotional potential into a performance that was both free of affectation and overwhelming in its sincerity of expression. One emerged from the auditorium slightly stunned perhaps, but with the sense of having experienced something extraordinary.


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