Optimistic Determination: Mahler 2 at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos

Mahler – Symphony No. 2

Soprano – Carla Caramujo
Mezzo-Soprano – María José Montiel

Coro do Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa / Antonio Pirolli.
Concert performance.

Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon, Portugal.  Thursday, April 6th, 2023.

Tonight’s performance of Mahler’s second symphony at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos was the house’s seasonal offering to this glorious city.  Conducted by music director, Antonio Pirolli, the resident orchestra, the Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa, was joined by the house chorus and soloists, Carla Caramujo and María José Montiel.  Frequent readers will know that I don’t normally write about symphonic music, but such was the power of this performance, I feel compelled to write some words.

Rehearsal photo: © André Quendera / TNSC 2023

The primary interest of attending this performance was getting to hear this work in such an intimate space.  Added to that was the chance to hear an opera orchestra with an Italian conductor.  What was noticeable about this performance was the striking combination of long cantabile lines with sheer dramatic power.  More than once during the evening was one led to reflect on how it felt that the orchestra were ‘singing’ their lines, the interplay between melodies and fragments of melodies always lyrical, yet never lacking in power.  In the first movement, Pirolli took us on a terrifying ride to the abyss.  Yes, the music was impeccably phrased, in long searching lines, but the way that he picked up the tempo as we moved towards the two massive percussion-emphasized pair of chords signalling an imminent end, was thrilling.  The strings dug deep, finding a deep-pile carpet of sound, yet also giving us a chilliness redolent of a bitter Atlantic wind.  Yes, their tuning did go a bit awry in the scherzo, with those long winding lines, but in this acoustic there was absolutely nowhere to hide.

Rehearsal photo: © André Quendera / TNSC 2023

The Ländler was charming, the interplay between the orchestral sections sung (that word again) as if a small Bohemian village choir, the stillness palpable.  Of course, I have no desire to go back to those days of peak plague, but I do miss how people were, not that long ago, embarrassed to cough in public.  The peace was interrupted on several occasions by some particularly bronchial people, as well as those who couldn’t bothered to switch off their phones.  The chorus and soloists took their seats between the second and third movements – a shame, perhaps, that Pirolli didn’t take Mahler’s suggestion to have a slightly longer pause between the first and second.  The scherzo wound its way through the sardonic darkness, the OSP clarinets giving us a more than decent impression of Yiddishkeit along the way.  When that terrifying climax arrived, the floor of the theatre vibrated and we knew then, that there was no way of going back.

Rehearsal photo: © André Quendera / TNSC 2023

Montiel fought valiantly with the German tongue in her ‘Urlicht’, but the language most definitely won.  Indeed, both she and Caramujo would probably have benefitted from some language coaching.  Montiel’s opening phrase was rather breathless, seemingly needing to insert breaths after ‘o’, ‘rös’, ‘chen’, and ‘rot’, and during her rendition, that sense of floating this music on a cushion of warm, focused sound was missing.  That long closing phrase also tapered off towards the end, the support not quite playing along.  Montiel does have an agreeably warm tone, with a full and generous chestiness.  But the general lack of consonants and rather Castilian vowels did leave something to be desired. 

Rehearsal photo: © André Quendera / TNSC 2023

The fifth movement more than lived up to its promise.  Yes, there were a few quibbles along the way.  The off-stage brass could perhaps have been more distant.  I’d have liked Pirolli to have held on to that big percussion crescendo a bit longer.  But, there was something genuinely real and heartfelt to his reading.  The way those big soaring melodies took wing, climbing ever higher, promising a hope of what lies beyond.  The stillness of the chorus’ first entry, impeccably tuned, and anchored by wonderfully resonant basses in the sepulchral depths, with Caramujo adding a radiant halo over the sound in her delectably silky soprano, with beguiling clarity of tone and evenness of emission.    Pirolli knew where this entire work leads to and he always kept his eye on the goal, the disjointed fresco of the fifth movement leading up inexorably to that big moment.  When the chorus repeated ‘sterben werd’ ich um zu leben’, we knew there was no way back.  That final peroration took us all before it, the organ nicely prominent, and if the choral sopranos were slightly taxed, it made it all sound so much more human.

Rehearsal photo: © André Quendera / TNSC 2023

I have absolutely no doubt that this was an evening those present will not forget in a hurry.  Pirolli and his forces gave us a reading that was vividly played, filled with drama, yet gave us an almost forensic insight into the work’s structure – the interplay between the orchestral sections was intensely brought to life.  There were some fleeting passages of raw string intonation and I regret to say that Montiel was disappointing.  Yet there was so much humanity to this performance tonight that left us with the feeling that this work should always give us.  Yes, life may throw so many obstacles at us, but life is actually worth living and we will still have some of our best days ahead of us.  The ovation from the audience at the close was as overwhelming as the performance.  Just one regret – that there was only a single, sold-out, show.  I would have gladly listened to it all again immediately.

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