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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Concert Review: It's Time to Rise

The Czech Philharmonic plays Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Semyon Bychkov in rapture. Photo by Chris Christodoulou.

In New York City, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, popularly known as the "Resurrection Symphony", is a work that is played in troubled times. It was performed by the New York Philharmonic after September 11, and on that event's tenth anniversary. So it is appropriate, given the roiling political climate in the United States in recent days, that it was the choice of the Czech Philharmonic for Sunday's concert at Carnegie Hall.

It should be noted that the plans for this orchestra's tour (and program) were laid down some time ago. Its real purpose is to celebrate 100 years of Czech independence. (Also, this performance was announced back in January of this year.) However, the arrival of the "Mahler Two" on Sunday's program, under the baton of new CPO music director Semyon Bychkov proved to be serendipity for a troubled city, especially in the light of the political rhetoric and home-grown terrorism incidents that have plagued Americans in this last week.

Enough politics. Mr. Bychkov and his cellos and basses grabbed the opening movement by the throat, leading a slow and heavy funeral march that gained weight by the application of tiny amounts of rubato to the quiet passages. Each reprise led to a fresh outpouring of grief, as the horns and trombones roared out the second subject. The woodwinds answered, timidly at first and then bolder as the movement rolled forward. However, the close is contemplative, not bombastic.

After a short pause in which Mr. Bychkov stepped off the podium and the two vocal soloists seated themselves, the work continues. The terror and grief of the funeral is followed by a lilting slow movement, Mahler at his most pastoral and Viennese. The scherzo followed, a wordless setting of one of the Wunderhorn songs, recounting the story of how a devout (and possibly inebriated) St. Anthony preached to the fishes. The climax of this playful, brassy movement was a terrifying cry of dissonance from the full ensemble, one that hinted at the apocalyptic way this work would come to its end.

Next, mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman stood up and sang "Urlicht", another song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Delivered in hushed, mysterious tones, this is the symphony's proper slow movement. In it, Mahler introduces rising figures that provide further clues as to the true design of this work and the climax to come. Ms. Kulman sang with slow and even tone over the broad strokea of the orchestra as Mr. Bychkov let the music boil slowly to a peak of tension.

That tension release started in the final movement. This is a monstrous movement, longer than the funereal opening. Mahler created an enormous two-part construction with enough ideas for another composer to write ten symphonies. Mr. Bychkov brought forth a genuine sense of awe and wonder in his orchestra players at the awesome events that were unfolding, maintaining the sometimes patchwork narrative of this ecstatic vision of the end of the world. There was a crescendo at one point that made the hair stand on end.

However, the lengthy second part, with its setting of Mahler's bowdlerized version of Klopstock's Resurrection poem, was less successful. It is not a knock on the two soloists, its just that this unearthly elevation of the dead into a celestial sphere could not compete with the instrumental playing that came before. However, Mr. Bychkov led the chorus (the Prague Philharmonic Choir) in a performance that uplifted the listener for having heard it, bringing everyone in earshot to a higher state. For this city and this audience it was a much needed reminder that things can always get better.

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