|Prom 45 2017 - BBC SO, Sakari Oramo photo : BBC|
Powerfully Inspired Mahler Symphony no 2 "The Resurrection", with Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO, soloists Elizabeth Watts and Elisabeth Kulman with the BBC Symphony Chorus and the Bach Choir, Prom 45. Because we hear Oramo and the BBC SO so many times each year, we take them for granted. But they are a formidably good band. Yet here they surpassed even their normal high standards. This was an extraordinarily moving Mahler 2. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Jiří Bělohlávek, the former Chief Conductor, who loved this orchestra and was loved by them in return. Please read my piece Jiří Bělohlávek : a tribute to the innovator and to the man. Bělohlávek last conducted the BBC SO a few weeks before his death, so this performance with Oramo felt unusually personal and sincere. But it was also masterful, lively and spirited, with depth and insight, which is saying something, since there are so many Mahler 2's around all the time, only the very finest, like this one, live on in the memory.
From the very first chords, it was clear that this would be nothing routine. The zing in the strings felt disturbing, even dangerous, for the symphony is a journey into unknown territory. Thus the ferocious tension, timpani, clashing cymbals and brass ablaze, alternating with long, keening string lines. reaching out into space. Then into the funeral march with its steady tread, reminding us of humility. Life inevitably comes to an end, for all mankind, whatever their station. But for a moment, we heard again the lyrical pastoral theme, like a distant memory. This performance highlighted how the unrelenting march continued, quietly, in the background, despite the anguish around it. Quiet, purposeful pizzicato, like footsteps, lead into savage brass climaxes, creating the sense of hard-won stages on a difficult ascent. It's interesting how Mahler contrasts powerful tutti with solo instruments: individuals clearly defined despite the overwhelming forces around them. Yet again the march continued, the horns blowing eerily, full of incident and detail, but relentless, though the vigour with which Oramo marked the sudden, spiralling denouement showed such defiance that it felt as though the music was mocking death itself.
The Allegro maestoso harks back to happier times. It's warm hearted and human scaled (very Sakari Oramo). Delicate pizzicato footsteps and the ring of harps. But repose doesn't last. The third movement, marked 'In ruhig fließender Bewegung' flowed with vigorous expansiveness: no surprise that Luciano Berio used it in Sinfonia as a metaphor for life and for the continuation of creative imagination. The BBC SO strings seemed to come alive : lissom playing, suggesting the fishes leaping out of water, their scales shining, unbothered by St Antonius's moralizing. "So there" shouted the timpani, for emphasis. Again, Oramo marked the sudden denouement, from which sprang the anthem O Röschen rot! Elisabeth Kullman's voice has a lovely, glowing timbre, well suited to expressing the light in Urlicht, for it is light that leads the soul onwards.
The brass fanfare was bright, too, but also sombre and quirky, almost like primeval instruments from ancient times. Again the surging "footsteps", reinforced by lighter, dancing figures, before the fanfare returned. The searching string chords, and wailing brass might suggest mourning, but they also mark the beginning of a new phase, as the march moved forward, purposefully. With a clatter of percussion and brass, and the crash of cymbals, the music rose to a glorious climax : woodwinds singing gleefully, the string lines expansive. Have we reached a peak ? Again, Oramo highlighted the contrast between this glory and the massive, overpowering roll that follows, intense because it marks the Dies Irae, the Days of Wrath at the End of Time. Now the march continued with tight but taut energy. Almost wild abandon, though the BBC SO players are far too good to lose momentum by not keeping together. Yet again, the crescendi dissolved into pure, refined textures. Penitent, reverent strokes of the harps, then the brass, from above and below, the latter earthier and more plaintive. Two trumpets call out, stretching out into space, uniting Heaven and Earth. The woodwinds sang brightly, creating images of light and movement.
The BBC Symphony Chorus and the Bach Choir entered quietly, in hushed reverence. British choirs are astonishingly good, and we shouldn't take them for granted. "Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n Wirst du, Mein Staub,..." Exceptionally lucid singing. Trumpets called out, as if reaching beyond a horizon. Just as the earthly and heavenly brass united, Elisabeth Kulman and Elizabeth Watts sang together, the choruses encircling them like a halo of sound, joined later by high winds and strings. Kulman sang "O Glaube" her voice resolute, "Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren! Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!" Being born means struggle, but life is not in vain. This resolution - resurrection - is, it has been reached by inner strength and determination. That's when an orchestra as good as the BBC SO shows its mettle. Its technical excellence inspired by intense, personal committment wrought miracles tonight.