Mahler’s second symphony, titled and themed ‘Resurrection’, makes a terrific racket. Marin Alsop brought the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra to the South Bank Centre, along with the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and, not happy with the scale of sound available, augmented it with the Southbank Sinfonia, Amici Chamber Choir, London Forest Choir, The Fleet Singers, Valentine Singers, Voicelab and the Writtle Singers. Counting the names in the programme, the total was 113 players and 487 singers. This coming together of the Bernstein Project and Southbank’s ‘Celebrating the Power of Singing Together’ had amassed some awesome forces.
The feeling at the end was, indeed, one of awe. It feels odd starting at the end, but the conclusion was (perhaps almost inevitably) the most uplifting, thunder-striking, altogether satisfying part of the project. We were on the end of the third row of the centre block of the stalls and to our left were singers. Yep, they filled the choir and spilled over into the slips, boxes and the side blocks of the stalls up to the third row. It was a remarkable effect, especially as they started all seated and hushed, conveying a thrilling sense of restrained power, then stood, and then those in the stalls, slips and boxes turned to face the majority of the audience as they hit a climactic ‘Auferstehen’ passage.
Detaching myself from this thrilling musical force, I am a little cooler about the overall effect. Alsop’s approach was certainly interesting, never less than engaging, but not entirely satisfying overall. It had a clinical control about it that robbed the symphony of that essential Mahlerian ‘heart on sleeve’ feeling. The opening set the scene, but deceived at the same time: the hushed strings struck up, then that cello figure came vivid and incisive and fast, followed by a long pause (those continued strings), then the return… but when the movement launched proper, the dominant mode was slow, detailed, controlled, delineated. As the big climaxes approached, there was a marked acceleration into the big moments that threw us headlong – and slightly disorientatingly – into hugely expanded dynamics of volume and force, but the tracts in between were of more cool temperature. If I likened it to recordings, it would be more Boulez than Bernstein: analytical, rather than felt.
This continued throughout the successive movements, to the point where just occasionally it felt like things were being stretched to the point where they risked coming detached. The lilt was there for the third movement, if the prescribed ‘gently flowing’ sense was missing: dynamics were rather more determinedly stretched.
Karen Cargill was the mezzo-soprano soloist, with Katherine Broderick her soprano counterpart. The fourth movement ‘Urlicht’ brought a revelation: Cargill is not a singer of which I have a significant experience (I think I remember being impressed by her 2007 Prom Waltraute?), and her performance was utterly wonderful. Hers is a rich, secure instrument and she deployed it with thoughtful attention to the pensive nature of the text. She most reminded me of Kathleen Ferrier in her vocal timbre – which is high praise indeed, I know – and I will make a very definite effort to catch her in operatic and concert performances in the future. I was very taken indeed with her sound. A glorious, firm, secure, warm sound indeed.
Broderick had less to do, but did it effectively, and Alsop did well to keep the dynamics in good balance between the soloists (principally Broderick as soprano) and the massed choirs in the earlier choral moments. Alsop was rewarding to watch throughout, very attentive to the different parts of the orchestra, and responding physically with great musicality. She kept these sprawling forces in good check, and clearly relished the vicerality of the full sound that they produced. I may have slight disagreements with the interpretation, but the commitment of all concerned, convincingly led by Alsop, added up to a satisfying whole. The strings had a slight acid tone at times, which may have been a product of how close we were to so many of them. The off-stage brass and percussion were very effective, as was the organ’s contribution despite it remaining at only a third of its full capacity, pending restoration.
A very enjoyable concert, then, and an ambitious and thoughtful project that did indeed celebrate the power of people coming together to sing. If the long orchestral prelude to the ‘big finale’ was ultimately a bit less successful, it did not detract in significant measure from the thrilling effect that this monumental and ambitious work can – and did – have. In the words of the translation, and offered by one who is a complete atheist:
Was du geschlagen
Zu Gott wird es dich tragen!
What you have endured
To God will it lead you!