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The Orchestra Resurrected

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/21/2010 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony Number 2 in C minor (“Resurrection”)

Anastasia Kalagina (Soprano), Olga Borodina (Mezzo Soprano)
Orféon Pamplonés, Igor Ijurra Fernández (Director), The Choral Arts Society of Washington, Norman Scribner (Artistic Director), The Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Music Director and Conductor)

O. Borodina (© Marty Umens)

Hoping (irrationally), that we in the audience could join in a last-movement sing-along for the “Resurrection” Symphony, I brought along my tattered Korean pirate edition of the score to Maestro Gergiev’s second concert of Mahler cycle this week at Carnegie Hall.

No, we weren’t allowed to join in. But I did remember, in tiny German print at the end of the first movement, that the conductor should give the audience five minutes of silence before the second movement. I don’t know any conductor who does this, but Mr. Gergiev should have at least offered two minutes of respite. For this first movement, a mighty configuration of serious marches, solemn flourishes, new themes appearing out of the woodwork, climaxes which evaporate, and a truly terrible loud chromatic scale at the end, is difficult for any conductor to coalesce.

Meticulous conductors like Levine and Boulez make a great effort. But Mr. Gergiev, who looks at the great picture without trying too hard for the details, did not begin convincingly. Yes, it was both solemn and fiery, the horns and trumpets announced the cataclysms in particular sections. At the same time, Mr. Gergiev couldn’t quite put the main moments in context. While the Marinsky strings are wonderful in their Russian hardness, here they lumbered along until the great climaxes awakened the orchestra.

Nobody should judge Mahler by this complicated but not too convincing beginning, and Mr. Gergiev took the next two movements with more volition, more melodic wonder. That little minuet had the right edgy feel. The scherzo, taken from his sarcastic song of St. Anthony preaching to the fish, was a controlled picture of energy.

(As usual, the Carnegie Hall program notes were more than adequate, but an editor should have immediately red-penciled a phrase that this movement is “a study in incomprehensibility that confronts the horror of meaninglessness”).

The awesome meaning of the Second Symphony came when (what my guest dubbed) “the lady in red” made her appearance, rising above the choral sea of black and white. Olga Borodina is well known here, but her mezzo voicer singing of God, pain and roses, was literally a light in the musical wilderness. Ms. Borodina suppressed her usual rich voice and sung with a delicate, almost un-earthly feeling, bringing the symphony, ironically, to more life than the more exciting previous movements.

Few conductors of Mr. Gergiev’s genius can fail with the finale. Like Beethoven, Mahler simply couldn’t resist a huge orchestral introduction, with brass and winds doubling in size and volume. And couldn’t resist the crescendos of the chorale. Mr. Gergiev used the extraordinary Orféon Pamplonés and the Choral Arts Society of Washington (along with fine young soprano Anastasia Kalagina joining them at times). They were not only a match for the Marinsky, but egged on the orchestra to play with even more grandeur for the indisputable triumphant ending.

Tonight, more choruses, a larger orchestra and more soloists will play the Symphony of a Thousand. That is the kind of Colossus which takes more power than subtlety, and Mr. Gergiev could well be in his most exalted element.

Harry Rolnick



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