Nigel Jarrett attends St David’s Hall to witness a performance from Welsh National Orchestra of Mahler Symphony No. 2 – conducted by Tomáš Hanus.
It takes a performance of Mahler at his most gargantuan to understand why sheer bulk was felt to be one way of taking music forward in the late 19th century, of physically hurling itself towards a new destination. The juggernaut that is his Second Symphony, known as the ‘Resurrection’ is, however, not so much unstoppable as irresistible and its sense of the future more frustrated than visionary, though it has its forward-looking moments. The way ahead was signalled by music of an entirely different character – lighter (in avoirdupois terms), tonally fugitive and often magical in timbre. There are parallels in other art forms, as the complex and sometimes bombastic gives way to something fresh and unencumbered, akin to being suddenly freed of a heavy and debilitating burden.
For Tomáš Hanus, on his first conducting assignment with Welsh National Opera since becoming its new music director, it was an opportunity to show how to lighten the load with forces that might have been slightly unusual for him: the addition of the WNO community chorus, formed several years ago to reflect the seventy-year-old origins of the company’s full-time and professional chorus among amateur singers. At this appearance in the St. David’s Hall series of international concerts, along with WNO’s present chorus, they took the number of singers ranged behind the orchestra to more than eighty. It was a credit to chorus masters Alexander Martin (full-time chorus) and Kate Woolveridge (community) that the joins never showed. For Czech conductor Hanus, his first stints in the opera house will be next summer, when he’ll be in charge of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. For a man out to make a good impression, this uncompromising Mahler performance augured well.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy to suggest that an opera orchestra hoisted out of the pit and asked to perform a symphony will show an affinity for its dramatic features. Nothing wrong with that, up to a point. It’s even more of an expectation where the ‘Resurrection’ is concerned, for this work is epic personal narrative: the outbursts are frequent and the self-questioning an almost continuous thread. Today, casting the existential on such a vast scale might be derided as mock-heroic, but there’s no denying the power of the music and its universal relevance, even if we no longer proclaim thought and feeling through a loud-hailer.
It’s not always loud. Hanus captured those exquisite changes of mood that give this symphony its variety of emotional scale, first as the breast-beating of the opening movement segues into the somewhat facile recollections of happier times in the second; and more especially later on as, first, the mezzo soloist, then the soprano, and then the choir – which also has its cataclysmic role – impose their sense of calm like benedictions. In the end, despair and doubt are spirited away by the prospect of redemption. But before that there’s the matter of the third movement, a wake-up call from the depths, played here with wonderful clarity and exuberance, the horns blasting Schalltrichter auf (‘bells up’) to remind us, if we needed reminding, that the composer was thinking big.
Karen Cargill’s floating of Urlicht (‘Primeval Light’, from Mahler’s vade-mecum, the folk-poem collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn) in the fourth movement was tenderness mediated by authority. Disquiet returns to muddy the waves in the fifth and final section but the choir’s extraordinarily serene entry on Aufersteh’n (‘Rise again’), which soprano Rebecca Evans, joined later by Cargill, complemented with singing of warmth and affection, demonstrated a concern for dynamic that outweighed those moments when the temptations of melodrama were barely resisted, especially at clamorous volume.
The soloists were embedded within the orchestra to the left behind the strings, an interesting and meaningful location that reflected a concern for balance in a work with a deal of offstage activity, most of it effective. All was set for one of those Mahler finales for which Hanus spared no expense of energy and for which organist Stephen Wood had been patiently waiting beside the hall’s behemoth. It was the kind of explosive ending that makes some listeners groan and others swoon. That’s Mahler for you: a confused and confusing man of his time and for all time. The symphony had a long way to go after this – well into the late 20th century, it should be said – yet in works such as the ‘Resurrection’, it had taken on heavy loads. With many such enterprises, and obeying the laws of gravity, the only direction is down; unless, as in this case, they can be kept airborne and still trailing their messages of anxiety and salvation.
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 20 October 2016
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, WNO Chorus, WNO Community Chorus
Mezzo: Karen Cargill
Soprano: Rebecca Evans
Conductor: Tomáš Hanus
Mahler Symphony No. 2 (‘Resurrection’)
Header image of Tomáš Hanus courtesy tomashanus.com