Archive for Chorus of Welsh National Opera

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”)

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2016 by telescoper

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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Ein deutsches Requiem

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on October 29, 2011 by telescoper

Last night was time for another injection of culture, so I went again to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a programme of music played by the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera conducted by musical director Lothar Koenigs.

The first item on the programme was the set of five Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children) by Gustav Mahler, settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert drawn from a huge collection of tragic verse the poet produced in reaction to the death of his children from scarlet fever. Mahler’s daughter Maria herself suffered the same fate in 1909, four years after the first performance of the Kindertotenlieder. Of course these works are immensely poignant, but the pervading atmosphere is not just of  melancholy but also of resignation. The soloist last night was mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly who gave a performance of great dignity and emotional power. She has a simply gorgeous voice, with lovely velvety chest tones as well as strength and clarity in the upper register. She looked the part too, her facial expressions adding to the sense of tragedy underlying the music. One for Mahler fans only, I suspect, but I loved it.

The next piece before the interval was quite new to me, A Survivor from Warsaw, written by Arnold Schoenberg in 1947 as a reaction to the persecution of jews in the Warsaw ghetto. In addition to the orchestra this work features a male chorus and a narrator (WNO regular David Soar) who recounts the story of a massacre in the declamatory Sprechstimme that Schoenberg used in several works. I was surprised to learn from the programme that the narration was actually written in English (as it was performed last night), but I don’t think the texture of the English language really suits this style of vocalisation. The male chorus sings a setting of the Shema Yisrael amidst sounds representing the violence of the attacking soldiers. The music is rigorously atonal: disturbing, agonized and entirely appropriate to the subject. Not exactly easy listening, but why on Earth should it be?

After the interval we heard the main piece of the evening, Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) by Johannes Brahms. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will know that I’m not exactly a devout follower of Brahms, but he is a composer I somehow feel I ought to persevere with. The German Requiem is, like the preceding pieces, a reaction to loss; in this case it was probably the deaths of Brahms’ mother and of his friend Robert Schumman that led Brahms to compose the work. It’s not a traditional Requiem, in the sense of being a liturgical setting, but it does take its text from the scriptures. It’s also a very large work, comprising seven movements lasting well over an hour altogether, and is Brahms’ longest composition. Soloists were David Soar (bass-baritone) and Laura Mitchell (soprano); the latter wore a white dress and black shoes to the consternation of the fashion-conscious members of the audience. Apparently that’s a no-no.

This is not a work that I’m familiar with amd it’s such a long piece that it’s difficult to take it all in during one performance. Inevitably, therefore, there are parts that stand out in my memory better than others. The orchestral playing was very tight, full of colour, and never lost momentum. However, I would say that the Chorus of Welsh National Opera were absolutely magnificent; the dramatic intensity they achieved during the crescendi in the 2nd movement (Denn alles Fleisch, with text drawn from Psalm 126) definitely raised the hairs on the back of my neck. That alone was enough to make me want to listen to this again.  I’d therefore like to ask any readers of this blog please to help by suggesting good recordings of this work through the Comments box.

Here’s a version of the 2nd Movement I found on youtube, just to give you an idea of its sombre majesty, but last night’s rendition was better. Try to imagine what the crescendo that grows from about 3.00 sounds like live…