A Mahlerian missed opportunity

Mahler: Symphony No 2 ‘Resurrection’.

Miah Persson (sop), Anna Larsson (mez)
National Youth Choir of Great Britain

Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolivar de Venezuela / Gustavo Dudamel.

Royal Albert Hall, London – Friday, August 5th, 2011.

Sadly, recently, I haven’t had as much time as I would have liked to write in the blog. Last week I attended Roger Norrington’s performance of the Mahler 9 at the Proms with the Stuttgart RSO. It was an interesting performance that felt ultimately like a work in progress rather than a finished interpretation. The basics were there and there was so much that was illuminating, it’s just that in concentrating on the short term effects, Norrington forgot about the longer line. Still, it was capped by a most wonderful rendition of the final movement with some of the most beautiful string tone that I have heard in that work. Despite its flaws, it was a performance true to the work that tried to put the composer’s intentions into practice.

Last night, I returned to the Royal Albert Hall to hear Venezuela’s Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolivar in the Mahler 2nd. This orchestra is testament to an incredible music education project that truly succeeds in placing music in a central role in society. The fact that they are playing Mahler at the very highest level on a world stage is incredible and something to be very proud of. I think OSSB is one of the greatest cultural achievements of our time. Yet, I just feel that this one was missed opportunity. Why? Because they were compromised by one of the worst interpretations of this work that I have ever heard.

This is a piece that I have known and loved since I was 12 years old. It’s the first Mahler that I listened to and it got me hooked on the others. This is, after all, a young man’s piece. The work of someone working on a massive canvas, who knew what an orchestra could do, trying to portray something that is almost impossible to portray – what lies beyond life. Yet it’s not a perfect work – it is nowhere nearly as cogently argued as the 9th for example – and the conductor has to work very hard to create a credible interpretation that brings all of these disparate strands together. Sadly, tonight Dudamel was just nowhere near up to the task and he let his excellent orchestra down. It was a self-conscious interpretation that focused on the moment, not on the long-line with no idea of structure and climaxes. There were some thrilling moments to be sure but this is a piece that should be full of them.

The first movement was taken at a snail’s pace and lasted much longer than the music could take. Climaxes went for nothing other than to add some extra noise. Dudamel seemed to trade on extremes – the climaxes were extra loud but he also asked his 12 double basses to bring incredibly quietly in their solo phrase towards the middle of the movement. This is after all a piece that is supposed to be a funeral march but it wasn’t so much of a march as a stasis. The second movement lacked any kind of charm despite some judicious use of portamento. Again, this is a laendler, yet it resembled more of a slow in a teenage disco than an Austrian peasant dance. The third movement lacked any kind of irony and again traded on extremes with the slower sections almost coming to a complete halt.

Anna Larsson was the wonderful mezzo soloist and she managed to maintain her superb breath control despite the ‘urlicht’ dragging to a complete halt. The final movement was bitty – yes it could be seen as a sprawling mess but – a good conductor knows how to pace it and Dudamel was clearly out of his depth. There were some wonderful moments – the horn calls were splendid and that percussion crescendo was superbly done yet, as a whole, the interpretation did not convince.

It was a nice idea to invite the National Youth Choir of Great Britain to join in for the finale. The quiet moments were beautifully pitched and balanced and Miah Persson a perfect soprano soloist. I wished that had called on the services of a German language coach though – the vowels in ‘der Herr der Ernte’ were identical – but that is just a small thing. Sadly, the final chorus was seriously underpowered, there were just not enough of them – perhaps the Proms could have invited the other national youth choirs in the UK to join them, or even, have formed a special youth choir for the occasion.

The close was greeted with a rapturous standing ovation with much screaming and clapping. Perhaps the audience were applauding what these musicians represent rather than the performance. I am happy that so many people got pleasure out of this performance. The truth is that under another conductor such as Rattle or Jansons, or even a younger maestro such as Nelsons or Jurowski, this could have been an unforgettable evening. Now the OSSB has joined the big league and they need to be considered as such. I really treasure what they do and what they represent – I just wish that they could be led by a maestro who understands the music that he is performing.

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