Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”)

Last night I was at St David’s Hall in Cardiff yet again, this time for a piece that I’ve never heard in a live performance: Symphony No.2 (“Resurrection”) by Gustav Mahler. This is a colossal work, in five movements, that lasts about 90 minutes. The performance involved not only a huge orchestra, numbering about a hundred musicians, but also two solo vocalists and a sizeable choir (although the choir does not make its entrance until the start of the long final movement, about an hour into the piece). In my seat before the concert I was particularly struck by the size of the brass section of the orchestra, but it turned out to be even larger than it looked as there were three trumpets and three French horns hidden offstage in the wings for most of the performance – they joined the rest of the orchestra onstage for the finale.

The musicians involved last night were the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera, and the Welsh National Opera Community Choir, conducted by Tomáš Hanus who is the new music director of Welsh National Opera; this was his St David’s Hall debut. Soloists were soprano Rebecca Evans (who was born in Pontrhydyfen, near Neath, and is a local favourite at St David’s Hall) and mezzosoprano Karen Cargill (making her St David’s debut).

I don’t really have the words to describe what a stunning musical experience this was. I was gripped all the way through, from the relatively sombre but subtly expressive opening movement through the joyously dancing second movement that recalls happier times, the third which is based on a Jewish folk tune and which ends in a shattering climax Mahler described as “a shriek of despair”, the fourth movement is built around a setting of one of the songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, sung beautifully by Karen Cargill who has a lovely velvety voice very well suited to this piece, which seems more like a contralto part than a mezzo. The changing moods of the work are underlined by a tonality that shifts from minor to major and back again. All that was wonderfully performed, but it was in the climactic final movement – which lasts almost half an hour and is based on setting of a poem mostly written by Mahler himself, sung by Rebecca Evans, that what was already a very good concert turned into something truly remarkable.

On many occasions I’ve written about Welsh National Opera performances in the opera theatre and in the course of doing so I’ve very often mentioned the superb WNO Chorus. They weren’t called upon until the final movement, but as soon as they started to sing they lifted the concert to another level. At first they sang sitting down, which struck me as a little strange, but later on I realised that they were holding something in reserve for the final moments of the work. As the symphony moved inexorably towards its climax I noticed the offstage brass players coming onto the stage, the choir standing up, and the organist (who had been sitting patiently with nothing to for most of the performance) took his seat. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up in anticipation of a thrilling sound to come. I wasn’t disappointed. The final stages of this piece are sublime, jubilant, shattering, transcendent but, above all, magnificently, exquisitely loud! The WNO Chorus, responding in appropriate fashion to Mahler’s instruction to sing “”mit höchster Kraft” combined with the full force of the Orchestra and the St David’s Hall organ to create an overwhelming wall of radiant sound. Superb.

Mahler himself wrote of the final movement: “The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.” Well, who knows where genius comes from, but Mahler was undoubtedly a genius. People often stay that his compositions are miserable, angst-ridden and depressing. I don’t find that at all. It’s true that this, as well as Mahler’s other great works, takes you on an emotional journey that is at times a difficult one. There are passages that are filled with apprehension or even dread. But without darkness there is no light. The ending of the Resurrection Symphony is all the more triumphant because of what has come before.

The end of the performance was greeted with rapturous applause (and a well-deserved standing ovation). Congratulations to Tomáš Hanus, Karen Cargill, Rebecca Evans and all the musicians who took part in last night’s concert which is one that I’ll remember for a very long time.

P.S. You might be interested to know that St David’s Hall has been ranked in the world’s Top Ten Concert Halls in terms of sound quality. Those of us lucky enough to live in or near Cardiff are blessed to have such a great venue and so many superb great concerts right on our doorstep!

P.P.S. The concert got a five-star review in the Guardian.

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4 Responses to “Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”)”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    It’s really good that it was an excellent performance.

    There is something special about Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. It’s one of those pieces that people should try to get to hear if there is a live performance coming up in a convenient location (other special pieces not often performed I’d name would include Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass and Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony).

    I’ve heard the Resurrection Symphony live several times, and parts are excellent. However, I’ve often found the ending, though loud and uplifting, slightly emotionally disappointing, perhaps because I didn’t find the promise of resurrection entirely credible, or because the acoustics weren’t quite right. I’ve only heard the piece in London: in the so-so acoustics of the Barbican Concert Hall (with the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra), and in the rather poor Festival Hall (with the Philharmonia at least twice). Perhaps it would sound stunning in a really good concert hall.

  2. My wife likes Mahler and in the spirit of harmony I went with her to this concert. She thought it was wonderful and was moved to tears by the end.

    I don’t like Mahler’s symphonies. I find them too long and too loud. But as my wife is usually right about most things I tried not to fidget and passed the time by counting the French Horns, which were very shiny and made a good show under the lights.

    Mind, Rebecca Evans is a joy to listen to whatever she sings, and Karen Cargill sang well too.

    In her oboe / cor days the first time my daughter had to play Mahler 6 she complained afterwards that when the woodwind raise the bells of their instruments all the spit that has accumulated inside dribbles down into the mouthpiece. Thought I’d share that with you. I guess for brass players that’s just everyday life which might explain a lot.

    • telescoper Says:

      Well, I too found it a cathartic experience. There was a time when I felt ashamed about crying when I hear music, but not anymore…

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Brass players, fortunately, have valves at a critical point in the tubing that can be opened to let liquid out. I hope it’s condensed water vapour.

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