Image: Drew Kelley
A rare opportunity to hear Mahler performed on period instruments? Count me in. I love Mahelr’s music, I’ve got a lot of time for historically informed performances (not the same as historical recreations, I might add) and I’m very fond of old instruments. This, it seems, was an evening for me. The joy!
Lots of people evidently felt the same way. The Royal Festival Hall played host to the landmark concert, part of the OAE’s 30th birthday celebrations, which was packed to the rafters. The vastly enlarged orchestra was joined by soprano Adriana Kucerova, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, the Philharmonia Chorus and conductor Vladimir Jurowski. On the menu: Mahler’s Symphony No 2 ‘Resurrection’.
At the end, as the heaving mass filed out of the auditorium, the mood was one of elation. People were commenting on the amazing performance and the ravishing quality of the instrumental sounds. In the days that followed I noticed similar praise in the press (although, admittedly, I only saw a handful of reviews).
Was I the only person left underwhelmed by the whole experience?
Don’t get me wrong, it was a good performance and I’m glad I went. However, for something touted so enthusiastically and involving players of such calibre, I expected an outstanding experience, not merely a good one.
The comments I encountered made a great fuss over the period instruments. Indeed, it was fantastic to hear so many assembled together. But that isn’t the point of Mahler’s Symphony No 2. It’s a piece of music with its own structure, its own message, constructed with highly skilled craftsmanship and great artistry. I went to hear the music, not to undertake a detailed survey of old instruments.
I found Jurowski’s interpretation lacklustre and a bit incoherent. I blow hot and cold with Jurowski. Some of his work has been known to bore me to tears and other performances I’ve found quite stimulating. This particular concert was somewhere in between. The ebb and flow of the music was stilted by some strange choices of tempo. Bits that ought to be skipped through were slower than the music could really bare. Some slower passages were horribly hasty, to the point of undermining the musicianship of the performers. Sarah Connolly was astonishingly strong throughout the concert – at times bold, at others sensitive and never overbearing. However, in the fourth movement, ‘Urlicht’, Connolly was forced to rush through one of the most still, reposeful moments of the symphony. As a result, we didn’t hear her at her best and the finale came crashing in with less terrifying power than it should. The extremes that give the work it’s unmistakable shape and weight had been ironed out.
There were balance problems too, not helped by the notoriously poor acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall (or my vantage point up in the gods). The strings, who produced a beautiful tone, were often overpowered. The hard-working horn players were clearly giving it everything they had trying to blow as quietly as possible in several important passages. Sadly, on some occasions, the strings were just too quiet and the horn section’s efforts went unfulfilled.
Speaking of instruments, Mahler 2 requires a lot of them, particularly woodwind and brass. I can’t imagine for the life of me that the OAE was able to source top quality examples of the right historical provenance for every performer. There must have been some tricky beasts in there. I also can’t imagine that such a big project involving so many people was able to command much rehearsal time. All that resource is very expensive. The net result was a few split notes. I don’t actually mind split notes. They happen. If the performance is enthralling enough you barely notice.
But the performance was plagued by all those strange changes of speed and odd balance decisions (why the timpani were played with such hard sticks so often is beyond me). We heard a disjointed structure in which great masses sound were punctuated with gaping holes. Unfortunately those holes were usually where the split notes occurred, making them more conspicuous.
The vocalists in the concert were incredibly strong. The soloists soared. The chorus was equally excellent at quiet, controlled tenderness and thrillingly loud exaltation. Jurowski’s unfortunate blindness to the symphony’s formal structure meant the choral entrances failed to deliver the right weight at the right time. This is not just a matter of volume or vocal tone, which were fantastically handled. Mahler’s music needs the right levels of repose and excitement properly paced. Phrasing needs to be thought of on a huge scale. That’s not what we got, especially in the finale. Instead of gradual, overlapping waves of drama, building to a thrilling and inevitable climax, we got a series of snapshots culminating in a different kind of thrill. The final big choral entry, underpinned by earth-shattering organ chords, was astonishingly loud and exciting. However, it was like being dropped into a state of freefall by a fairground ride: fun, but artificial. The adrenaline rush was not the result of a psychological or emotional connection with musical experience, but a by-product of sensational forces being hurled at our physical senses.
I don’t want to sound wholly negative. Again, I’m glad I went. I also don’t want to level all my criticism at Jurowski’s feet. The RFH acoustic does nobody any favours and the audience was one of the loudest and most discourteous I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit in. I’d hoped to hear Mahler 2 for the first time once more. I’d never heard it live and the many recordings I’ve listened to have all been on modern instruments. This was a chance to fall in love all over again. At the very least, it was the chance to see an old friend from a new perspective. I didn’t expect to engage my brain objectively, nor did I really want to. And yet, I was so distracted by what happened on and off the stage (I’m looking at you, fellow audience members), I couldn’t help but think analytically. I so wanted to be swept up by the occasion, I really did. But I wasn’t. Instead, I observed it.
It’s telling that most of the ensuing commentary focussed on the novelty of hearing Mahler played on historical instruments. Everybody was treating this as an Event (capital E) rather than a performance of great music. It was fabulous hearing the brass snarl, wonderful that the woodwinds sounded so individual and it was great to hear Mahler’s exquisite string textures played on gut-strung instruments. But those are ultimately superficial concerns. I didn’t go so I could take a jaunt through an instrument museum, I went to experience a piece of music. It seems that music was further down the priority list.
I’m reassured, though, that something so out of the ordinary was so popular. I’m comforted by the fact that large numbers of people are willing to make the effort to hear things done in a new way. And let’s not forget, all the performers did their jobs fantastically. Oddly enough, the stars of the night weren’t the old instruments, Mahler or Jurowski, but the vocalists. They stole the show and, it turns out, were a bit of a saving grace. If only they had more to sing!