Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, CBSO, Ono, Symphony Hall Birmingham | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, CBSO, Ono, Symphony Hall Birmingham
A century on from the day of his death, the composer is deliriously resurrected
Gustav Mahler died, according to his wife Alma’s memoirs, at midnight on 18 May, 1911. Anyone mystically inclined to connect noughts and "o"s – you see it crossed my mind – might find some spooky link between 00:00 (pedantically, the time of death was 23:05) and the fact that, for this centenary concert, indisposed conductor OramO (Sakari) was belatedly replaced by OnO (Kazushi). What transpired was delight – near-delirium, in fact – that a supreme master had total control of the composer’s Second (Resurrection) Symphony: a theatrical celebration of life and death rather than a transcendental meditation, but a masterpiece still, if perfectly realised.
The Japanese conductor is a joy to watch. Everything you see in his technique you hear in the performance, with (as it should be) more passion from the players than from their spirit-guide. Like Vladimir Jurowski, conductor of the only other truly electrifying Resurrection I’ve heard in the concert hall, Ono has a clarity which combines rhythmic rigour with a swooping, elegant mastery of that essential element in Mahler which eludes some of the top names, Boulez and Barenboim included: the paradoxically rigorous freedom known as rubato, frowned upon by the no-fancy-words brigade.
Ono’s rigour was clear from the opening bars, which always tell you so much about how the conductor’s going to handle Mahler’s journey from heroic death rites via memories to a far from straightforward hereafter. This listener’s hairs stood on end not just from the wild yet precise upsurge of cellos and basses but also – uniquely – thanks to the stomach-flipping pregnant pauses in between. Yet the lyricism was soon allowed to soar and billow within tightly controlled parameters.
The extremes were not in any mannerisms of pace, the kind of thing that turns me off this already grandiose scheme in so-called classic interpretations like Klaus Tennstedt’s, but in the dynamics – and this on a truncated rehearsal schedule which can hardly have given Ono the time to fine tune in the way that the CBSO’s supreme Mahlerian, Simon Rattle, always has.
There was all the difference in the world between the micro-management that sometimes fell like a dead weight across Rattle’s recent Berlin Philharmonic Third Symphony - his CBSO recording, by the way, flows better, as does the Birmingham Resurrection compared to the recent one from Berlin - and Ono’s sense of the bigger picture. Yet the performance still abounded in sounds never heard quite this way before: the hyper-deadpan, harp-flecked pizzicati heightening the naivety of the old-fashioned minuet, following the massive first movement after a meditative pause almost as long as the five-plus minutes Mahler asked for, and the woozy trumpets swelling and fading like Carroll's Cheshire Cat high above the hurly-burly of the phantasmagorical scherzo.
Anything less than perfection from the two vocal soloists could only come as a temporary shock. Renata Pokupić needed to coast in with simpler religious assurance on a single breath; a chopped-up "O röschen roth" broke the spell. But she sang the rest, especially the finale’s desperate need to believe, with intense meaning and a warm, burgundy-red mezzo colour to match the dress. She was not alone in recovering from a brief sag in pitch; promising young English singer Jane Irwin has turned soprano, and a lyric-dramatic one at that, almost too weighty to float her first winging-away from the crucial Resurrection chorale.
No reservations at all, though, about the extraordinary CBSO chorus. Of course, there’s nothing quite like vast forces singing pianissimo at the crucial moment of salvation, nirvana, call it what you well, when Mahler decides at last there’s no threat from the old wives’ tale of judgment day. But it’s hard to credit a non-professional choir with the half-lights conjured in the men’s meditation and the sudden burst of "Bereite dich!" ("Prepare yourselves!"): non-trained tenors can't normally give this much tone, but these ones did, thanks to Simon Halsey’s training and countless previous CBSO Resurrections under Rattle, Nelsons, Oramo - all of them playing a part in this season's Mahler cycle - and others.
By the time of that crucial choral entry, Ono had guided us on to a higher plane, with luminous onstage horns lining the awed response to the four offstage sounding the last trump (the pure, resonant tone of their collective high note was worthy of the supreme Vienna hornmasters). And here, as with the crystal-clear but still other-worldly band that marches the risen bodies of the Last Judgment into panic, the ineffable spaces of Britain's most impressive concert hall, the one which gives you the sense that the sky's the limit after the low sonic ceilings of the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall, came into their own.
Perhaps it was a pity that Ono didn't have time to consider what to do with the brass chorale that answers the mezzo's summons (this, too, Mahler wanted placed slightly apart, as Jurowski so memorably made sure it was). Yet he never lost clarity or control - still those eloquent fingers were fluttering as the walls of sound hit us again and again - while his players and singers burned for him. Even in the other hallowed concert halls where orchestras saluted the second of the big Mahler anniversaries last night - and London's were not among them - the roof can hardly have been raised more magisterially.
- The CBSO's 2011-12 Mahler cycle ends with Rattle conducting Das Lied von der Erde in Birmingham on 12 June
- Find recordings by Kazushi Ono on Amazon
Watch Sir Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the opening of Mahler's Resurrection finale
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