Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection)

Composer(s):
Mahler
Works:
Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection)
Performer:
Kate Royal (soprano), Magdalena Kozená (mezzo-soprano); Berlin Radio Choir; Berlin PO/Simon Rattle
Label:
EMI
Catalogue Number:
EMI 647 3632
Performance:
starstarstarstarnostar
Sound:
starstarstarstarstar
4
Reviewer:
BBC Music Magazine

Is there no end to the amount of textural detail each new recording of the Resurrection can reveal? Simon Rattle clearly thinks not, for here he brings even more to light than was to be found in his perhaps more impulsive CBSO account. Much is simply adherence to Mahler’s accents and huge range of dynamic markings, none of which escape the Berlin Philharmonic, and many of which loom in lower registers when the instruments above are playing quite differently.

It’s true Rattle has a tendency to play up extremes, but it usually highlights the modernity of Mahler’s conception, especially in the stretched-out discords of the brass against timpani struck with wooden-stick as the first movement screeches back to its starting-point. 

It always surprises me how much can be read into a conductor’s handling of the first few bars in Mahler’s Second Symphony. That tremolo fortissimo, that upward thrust of cellos and basses: how much energy is behind them? Not quite enough in the case of Mariss Jansons’s streamlined but safe first movement.

Yet Rattle proves an exception to the above rule since the opening is his least impressive gambit: the staid tempo he chooses for the funeral march proper results in too much of the essential energy falling between the earth-cracks opened up at the very beginning. Yet what follows in Rattle’s account makes clear that the recording itself is not at fault.

Magnificently present and vivid, it catches the superb timpani players especially well; prepare to jump out of your seat at the gunshots which follow on the heels of the minuet. It faces the cataclysms unflinchingly and even manages to persuade us that the trumpets of ‘Urlicht’ are placed somewhat apart. 

A pity, then, that Magdalena Koená’s attempt for Rattle to play the rock-solid mezzo/contralto is only an impersonation. Kate Royal’s soprano also lacks the last degree of opulence, but the magnificent Berlin Radio Choir soon make amends, and the post-holocaust enchantments are magically coloured. For anyone who cares about this symphony Rattle’s new recording is essential listening, if not necessarily a first port of call. 

While Rattle sets new standards with the light, shade and shock of his Berlin funeral rites which open the Symphony, Jansons comes nowhere near in terms of trying to realise every precise injunction Mahler has put into the score, though it’s always a pleasure to hear warm Concertgebouw horns in noble ensemble, and the woodwind do beautiful things with the second of the heavenly visions in the movement.

What raises this three-star performance a notch is exactly what downgraded Rattle’s from a five-star thoroughbred: the mezzo solo. Unlike Magdalena Kozená, who really wasn’t up to the ‘Urlicht’ solo, Bernarda Fink is the model of feeling gravitas. Again, the trumpets are placed audibly offstage.

You don’t really want to see them, as you later do, in the accompanying DVD of one out of the three performances which went to make up the audio performance. I prefer the bigger picture, which we get all too seldom in the film but which, along with professional Dutch choral forces – bassi profundi a little too prominent – help to make the recording a panavision pleasure, if you forgive the mixed metaphor.

A touch of uneasy shuffling mars what should be the unearthly silences, but otherwise the Concergebouw spaces are done proud, as usual. David Nice