Saturday, 10 August 2013

Sunshine Mahler Resurrection? Jansons Prom 35

Mahler in the sunshine? Mariss Jansons conducted Mahler's Symphony no 2, BBC Prom 35 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Jansons has a devoted following because he's good. But he's also not the most incisive or challenging interpreter of Mahler's quirky genius. On the other hand the Mahler anniversary year changed the way Mahler's music is heard.  Whole new audiences have come to Mahler through celebrity performances like those at the South Bank. Lorin Maazel triumphs! At long last he's made his mark. Jansons was an established Mahler conductor long before the anniversary year, but he's gold standard compared with some of the entry-level pap we've been fed – books and commentary as well as concerts.

"I do not like this", a friend emailed me."It makes me feel like Die Walküre converted to Christianity"

A brilliantly perceptive line!  Although Mahler did convert to Christianity, he wasn't a cynical or calculating person. An element of genuinely sincere interest in Christianity runs throughout his music, far more deeply than ever gets credited. But fundamentally, Mahler does his own thing. If Wagner could mess around with theology, Mahler wasn't under any obligation to stick to strict  liturgy. Jansons' Mahler 2, however, takes religiosity at face value. Of course one will respond, as millions have done for centuries, because religion appeals to something in the human spirit, whether or not one truly believes. 

"He turns that trembling opening theme into powerful light like Wagner, but admits much less noise", my friend added. Of course the Urlicht theme pervades the symphony but it makes its full impact when approached gradually. The symphony unfolds like a procession, a pilgrimage towards a goal that''s so great it can't be grasped without a penitential journey beforehand.  Without death, there is no Resurrection.

So much has been written about Mahler's struggles writing this piece that I don't need to repeat it. But imagine how Mahler felt at the funeral of Hans von Bülow a man he identified with. Once Haitink conducted the long Allegro maestoso at such slow tempi that the orchestra had trouble sustaining their lines. But he was making a valid point. We were in  the presence of a stillness like death, the music barely ticking over, as if in the final stages of coma. 

Jansons was good, however, at the summery Ländler images in the second movement. Their place in the symphony serves as a Rückblick, a glance backwards, but it's not nostalgic so much as poignant, for they can never be regained. Better to hear them expressed with pain and regret than as diversion. This symphony can throb with fear. "Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!". When the contralto sings it can feel like a primal scream, even a suggestion of the pain of childbirth, because the song represents a new stage in the traverse. Gerhild Romberger took her cue, as she should, from the conductor. Nice singing, but little anguish. The choir awakened, as if they'd been "snoozing in the Bavarian sunshine", as my friend commented. Genia Kühmeier's "Aufersteh'n" was bright and shiny, but for maximum impact it should have risen from an hour and a half of darkness. Christians know there will be Life Everlasting, but they also know Purgartory comes first. As Wagner told us, we have first to be cleansed by fire.

Most people would have enjoyed Jansons' Mahler 2. It was certainly bright and glossy, and technically very well performed, if a straightforward interpretation. Mahler is never boring, and the whole premise of the symphony is that it's uplifting. But where does that "Primeval Light" come from? Note the terminology. Wherever this Light is coming from, it comes from a mysterious source possibly even greater than notions of formal religion. But I wish Jansons had addressed it with more reverence.

1 comment:

Arthur Ransome said...

I found the lack of urgency in the singing of the repeated "Glaube" very unfortunate. When the orchestra has been playing these notes for so many repeats, one longs to hear the words sung with conviction when they finally appear.