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Monday, February 27, 2012

Concert Review: The Apocalypse Watch

Sir Simon Rattle conducts Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.
Sir Simon Rattle.
Photo © EMI Classics.

When Simon Rattle was 12 years old, he went to a performance of Mahler's Second Symphony: the massive five-movement worked dubbed the Resurrection after its choral finale. The young listener immediately wanted to conduct it. Four decades later, Sir Simon Rattle sees the Resurrection as his classical calling card: the central composition of his conducting career. Small wonder that he chose this work to end his three-night stand at Carnegie Hall with the Berlin Philharmonic. The 

Since a performance of the Mahler Two usually runs about 90 minutes, it is usually not paired with works by other composers. This concert started with three short choral works by Viennese composer Hugo Wolf. The Westminster Symphonic Choir made a good case for "Fruhlingschor", from Wolf's unfinished second opera Manuel Venegas. The Wagner-inspired melodies wound forth from the orchestra, casting a brief spell that makes one want to hear more of this rare opera.

Soprano Camilla Tilling led the short "Elfenlied," evoking the Romantic side of Wolf's writing with its pixie-dust orchestration. The mini-set ended with a virtuoso performance of the challenging "Die Feuerreiter." This genuinely disturbing lied--about an arsonist who perishes in a burning mill, was performed in a complex choral arrangement that proved a welcome challenge for the Berlin players.

Maybe it's because they were warmed up from playing the Wolf pieces, but the Berlin Philharmonic played the opening funeral march of the Resurrection with unusual zeal. The basses and cellos growled out the first subject, answere by rising figures in the horns and a longing melody in the low woodwinds. Sir Simon showed his long experience with this work, letting his orchestra swagger but never sacrificing momentum. 

The ferocity of the Totenfier march gave way to the longing ländler of the second movement and the ironic, bitter pages of the central scherzo. This is some of the most difficult terrain of this symphony, as Mahler's protagonist bids a bittersweet farewell to mortality. Acceptnce comes in the ravishing "O roschen rot" sung here by mezzo Bernarda Fink. Singer and orchestra created a brief peace with this meditative movement, before the real firepower was unleashed.

Carnegie Hall is a great music venue, but its high balconies and tight backstage spaces make putting on the last movement of the Resurrection something of a challenge. Mahler calls for bell players, offstage horns, and an entire marching band in the distance depicting the rising of the dead and the build-up to the final judgement. 

Sir Simon's long experience in this symphony made this huge movement--almost a dramatic scene from an opera--move forward from one section to the next. The orchestra produced admirable effects, from the raised horns in the back proclaiming the tuba mirum to the percussion and basses going to town depicting the earth itself cracking open in a series of apocalyptic sonic blasts.

When the chorus came in, it was almost a relief, that the heavenly torments were at an end and the redemption promised in the first movement finally began to unveil itself. Ms. Tilling and Ms. Fink were added to the massed voices of the choir, and the whole work seemed to elevate into a higher plane. It was overwhelming and gloriously over the top.
Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.