Mahler’s music is more popular than ever at present. The RSNO, for example, are about to embark on a complete Mahler cycle, and the audience for this concert was markedly busy when you compare it with most of the rest of the Usher Hall’s Sunday Classics season. But then, Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony is one of those works that feels like a special occasion every time you hear it. How many other works deploy so many forces, and keep a huge chorus in tow to sing for only the final ten minutes? Even considering that, this was one of those particularly special occasions, a time where the playing and the sense of occasion coalesced to produce something extremely memorable.
I guess a lot of that springs from the sense of class exuded by the orchestra. It must be tough being an Austrian orchestra outside of Vienna: if you are not part of the capital’s unique musical heritage, then many international concertgoers just do not want to know. Why have cotton when you can have silk? Make no mistake, though: on the basis of today’s concert they are a class act. For one thing, they are steeped in the Austro-German tradition every bit as much as their Viennese comrades. They play on Vienna-made brass instruments for one thing, producing a more piercing brass sound that cuts through the climaxes with more clarity than most. For another, the orchestra as a whole seems to have the Mahlerian style running through their veins. The strings, for example, have that distinctive mitteleuropäische gloss to their sound that gives them an astonishing sheen, and they would occasionally throw in a cheeky portamento that showed they weren’t afraid to add their own take, something perfect for the folksy gemütlichkeit of the Ländler.
Their sound as a whole was remarkably assertive, notably so when you compare them with most of the British orchestras I have heard playing Mahler. The opening shudder for example receded like a troubled sforzando almost as soon as it began, and the bite of the cellos and basses had the edge of a stab wound. It made for a remarkably exciting opening, something that was carried on throughout the first movement. Granted: the silky elegance that made the first two movements so arresting felt a little out of place in the Scherzo, which could have done with a greater sense of the macabre, but the climactic scream was electric, while still managing to avoid sounding crude.
They also showed great subtlety throughout, something that was helped by the sure hand of conductor Markus Poschner. He gave the music a real sense of a journey and, more to the point, this was a voyage where he knew what the final destination was going to be right from the outset. There were a few odd touches, such as a rather schmaltzy slowing up before the appearance of the major-key theme of the first movement, and a too-willfully extended pause after the first movement. On the whole, though, I really liked the way Poschner grasped the music’s scale, and this came into its own in the vast span of the finale, which sounded as though it had been built up with painstaking attention to detail. Each block was carefully enunciated as it appeared – such as the winds’ first announcement of what would become the mezzo’s ‘O glaube’ theme – and then built together into a solid musical edifice. The trombones’ chorale theme, too, made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle, and those infinite drum rolls sounded like the end of the world; the second, for once, sounding every bit as thrilling as the first.
Poschner also embraced the quiet moments every bit as much as the loud ones. Several times, for example, he would go from fff to ppp while embracing both extremes, and at the end of the (beautifully articulated) Urlicht he held on to every last second of the dying string sound before unleashing the waiting mayhem of the finale.
The orchestra were helped by the combined forces of the Leeds and Sheffield Philharmonic Choruses, who did a great job, creating a big, soft and pleasingly accurate sound for their first entrance, building up to a blazing peroration in the final minutes. Only at ‘Bereite dich’ was there a slight hint of barking but, when you consider how late they must have been inserted into the jigsaw puzzle, they did extremely well. So did alto Theresa Kronthaler, who sang an ‘Urlicht’ of prelapsarian innocence, and Brigitte Geller’s more knowing soprano, who not only blended beautifully with Kronthaler but also kept the chorus right during their first entrances.
All told, then, it was a pretty special performance, a glimpse of the Central European musical tradition doing what it does well, combining with a full-throated British choral sound that was very pleasing. The orchestra now take this symphony on tour to Middlesbrough, London, Reading and Sheffield, finishing with a different programme in Birmingham. They are well worth catching if you get the chance.
Leeds Philharmonic Chorus & Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus
Markus Poschner (conductor), Brigitte Geller (soprano), Theresa Kronthaler (alto)