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Purgatory Before Heaven

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
10/31/2014 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”
Angela Meade (Soprano), Sarah Connolly (Mezzo-soprano)
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (Director), The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick, Nézet-Séguin (Music Director and Conductor)

Y. Nézet-Séguin (© Chris Lee)

The most vivid imagination would fruitlessly picture Gustav Mahler dunking for apples or trick ‘n’ treatin’ on Halloween evening. Yet still, the name “Resurrection” does pull up portraits of ghosts rising, floating specters, hallucinations and angels.

So the Philadelphia Orchestra scheduling of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony was not too much out of place last night. The rest of New York was outside celebrating with funny hats, pirate eyepatches and Spiderman garb. Bur we inside the comfort of Carnegie Hall had at least the intimations of Walpurgisnacht.

More than intimation, though, was that the strings of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the exciting conducting of their young Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin would be as exciting as the young Gustav Mahler would have wished.

The best laid plans, though, oft have a way to change. This was not the “great” Mahler one would have desired. Oh yes, that last movement massive choral/solo/orchestra crescendo almost physically lifts audiences to stand and offer huzzahs! But the rest of this work was more difficult to bring off.

The Maestro started with a conscious–all too conscious–contrast between the all too hushed start and the gloomy drama. That he was not quite able to make this a unified work was unusual. Nobody, except possibly Levine and Solti can turn this into a sweeping unity, pulling a listener into its core.

Evident with Mr. Nézet-Séguin, though, was that he had perhaps over-rehearsed the crisp notes, the hushes, those carefully considered details. Ignoring the fluffing horns, it still lacked flow, the emotions were startling rather than phrased, the eloquence was momentary than momentous.

This could have served, though, except for a strange event. The two soloists entered after this first movement, generating a not-surprising round of applause from the audience, breaking up the work as a whole.

(This, and the later opening and closing of the side doors for the offstage music was a real distraction.)

Nor did the conductor help with a lagging, an almost tedious second movement. After all, this is ländler, a real dance. The tune may be simplistic, but it is elegant. And with this early symphony, Mahler was ready to picture the dancers swaying and fro-ing. Mahler in specifying Andante moderato wanted it to move. Instead, Mr. Nézet-Séguin gave it an enervation, a tiredness which only accentuated the triviality.

Little grotesquerie was offered in the third movement, but when contralto Sarah Connelly got to her feet, her “Urlicht” created a holy feeling missing from the rest of the work. Her voice was not warm, but one didn’t need warmth when speaking of Man’s “pain” Man’s “need” And when she came to a description of heaven, Ms. Connelly’s simplicity was a joy in itself.

This, in fact, was the start of an animating compelling music which Mr. Nézet-Séguin continued until the end. The pandemonium, those offstage calls (with constantly moving doors), and the Dies Irae gave–finally!–the adequate preface for the sheer operatic beauty of Angela Meade. Her soprano was one of absolute drama, her orchestra followed her, and one knew that the finale would make the usual hairs raise on the usual neck.

The Westminster Choir–almost 150 voices–was the ideal size for a work of such blatantly Romantic grandeur. The Gustav Mahler we knew in the last symphonies as manic and depressive philosopher and mystic, was never in these last vocal/orchestral moments. This was Mahler the late 19th Century Darwinian optimist. The Klopstock poems spoke of resurrecting the spirit, but Mahler was composing music that would glorify the ultimate perfection on earth.

In this case, that glory soared to the highest balconies of Carnegie Hall, and the audience, which filled every seat, finally had their wishes for musical fervency, well fulfilled.

Harry Rolnick



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