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Reviews

23 Feb 2020

Hrůša’s Mahler: A Resurrection from the Golden Age

Jakub Hrůša has an unusual gift for a conductor and that is to make the mightiest symphony sound uncommonly intimate. There were many moments during this performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony where he grappled with its monumental scale while reducing sections of it to chamber music; times when the power of his vision might crack the heavens apart and times when a velvet glove imposed the solitude of prayer.

Mahler: Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Jennifer Johnston

Photo credit: R.T. Dunphy

 

There was, it should be said, nothing intimate about Hrůša’s opening bars; the abundance of dynamic power here was terrifying and yet it was played with a gripping conviction and intensity which would be a hallmark of this performance. There are performances of Mahler’s Resurrection which lapse - rather quickly, and all too commonly - into fragments. This was not one of them. Hrůša does see contrasts in the first movement, but they aren’t noticeably extreme. We never got a heavy-handed treatment of the woodwind during their first theme; their rhythms were pointed and eloquently sketched rather than chiselled into stone. That Hrůša was able to take this vast movement in one long sweep never concealed the urgency or dramatic intensity of the furious and wild ride he and the orchestra took us on.

It was the second movement’s Andante which demonstrated either considerable preparation for this performance, or just a symbiosis of vision between the conductor and orchestra. Whichever it was, it was simply remarkable. I have rarely encountered this movement performed with such delicacy or care for its inner details; hanging on each note but with such fluidity - but then Hrůša’s Czech background takes us very close to the Mahlerian roots of Austrian Ländler and waltzes where these things matter. Woodwind solos weren’t just phrased like mini dramas, each individual instrument was like the dramatis personae in a play; it was crystal clear what each instrument was doing (the chamber music quality of this performance) and you never questioned even the smallest details. The pizzicato section had no unexplained deviations; and you knew exactly whether the harp was playing an arpeggio or otherwise.

Hrůša’s Scherzo lacked none of the fear or horror which he had brought to the first movement. One often wondered from what hell the resonating and thundering timpani came from; but they were the support or markers for a tempo which had a swiftness that was electrifying. Hrůša is not a conductor to feel the fear of Mahler’s pianissimos - we got it during the main subject here. The lingering, evocative, bassoon of Emily Hultman appeared like a spectral presence through the undergrowth of the orchestra, just as a fluttering trio of flutes wavered and floated above the Philharmonia’s gutsy strings. Brass were so precise they seemed like soldiers marching in unison.

Urlicht really was uncommonly rapt here, perhaps a surprise given how powerful the first three movements of the symphony had largely been. Hrůša didn’t so much take the orchestra into quieter territory but pulled them down like a force of nature. I think it made Jennifer Johnston all the more sumptuous because of that, her voice seeming just a little larger than life and we usually experience in this movement. The darkness of her tone, those plump lower notes with a beautifully supported upper range which floated exquisitely mirrored so much of what Hrůša had been doing with the orchestra. That depth in Johnston’s bottom register was articulated on the lower strings; she was always involving, the Philharmonia never elementary.

After such rapture the outburst to the final movement seemed shocking. Hrůša held nothing back, unleashing the Philharmonia with such power it felt like the prelude to an execution. You sometimes sense fatigue in orchestras during this vast monument - here, if anything, the Philharmonia were driven by its ferocity, inspired by Hrůša’s vision of its immensity and scale but also of its visceral, juggernaut-like drive. The Royal Festival Hall is often criticized for its acoustic but in such large-scale works as Mahler’s Resurrection this hall works to its advantage. This was particularly the case during the off-stage bands, those eccentric, even malevolent, distractions. Here they felt like rapid, intoxicated and riotous interludes, although just occasionally one felt that Hrůša brought such power to the orchestra they were simply overwhelmed. But off-stage trumpets were magnificent and as sharp as knives in their accuracy.

The soprano Camilla Tilling did not start her first entry well, sounding both underpowered and very uncertain as to whether her voice would stretch to its required range. The first entry of the chorus - on such a diminished pianissimo - was ravishing, audible enough, but one almost had to strain to hear them. If Johnston had the power to rise above the orchestra, Tilling still struggled somewhat, not always helped by a variable vibrato which strained rather than helped her voice. I’m not really sure they gave the most balanced of duets I have ever heard in this symphony either. It was only really before the chorus’s forte entry that Tilling finally assumed some power but it felt too late. And the chorus were magnificent, even cataclysmic, the clarity of the diction almost irrelevant given the sheer scale of its climax. Hrůša brought that final orchestral peroration to a close with its breadth of emphasis rather than the usual clipping of the phrase.

This had been a superlative Mahler Resurrection, a gripping performance in an age where it is rare to experience Mahler of this quality.

Marc Bridle

Camilla Tilling (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Jakub Hrůša (conductor), Philharmonia Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra

Royal Festival Hall, London; Thursday 20th February 2020.

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