Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Kansas City Symphony Mahler 2

They say no one likes a show-off, but can we make an exception for the Kansas City Symphony? When you have a fine new venue such as Helzberg Hall you just have to show everyone what it can do. A work tailor made for showing what a hall and ensemble can do was the sole work on this weekend’s program, Mahler’s grand Symphony # 2 “Resurrection”. Michael Stern led the combined forces of the Symphony and Chorus with Kelly O’Connor and Jessica Rivera as soloists.

Much like the previous Symphony #1, the “Resurrection” was slow to evolve into its final form. The first movement started as a tone poem titled Totenfeier (Funeral Rites), written in 1888. The middle movements, 2 and 3, date from 1893. The problem was finding the right text for his proposed choral final movement. Conductor Hans von Bulow’s funeral in 1894 provided the inspiration and the text, Friedrich Klopstock's “Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection)”, a setting of which was performed at the funeral. After composing the finale, Mahler went back and inserted a short song “Urlicht” just before the finale, sort of a transition from the worldly to the heavenly.  Also like the first, Mahler toyed with programmatic subtitles and descriptions of the movements, up until the work’s premiere. They were later abandoned, letting the music speak for itself.

From the very first gruff flourish of the lower strings I sensed that this might be a slightly cool “Resurrection”. Stern and the orchestra just seemed to lack the n’th degree of drama that marks the very best of performances of this monster of a symphonic movement. As the movement progressed, great details abounded; crisp, precise percussion, well executed wind solos and careful focus on dynamics, the latter most essential. The forces found their moxie in the grand build up and exhausted collapse that occurs after the development and by the end of the movement the inherent drama was emerging.

Stern wisely followed Mahler’s instructions to observe an at least 5 minute gap between the first and second movements, something that is not often done today and missing on a recording unless you do it your self. It allows one to digest the sprawling first movement and illustrates the contrast of the more delicate and less episodic movements to come.

Those who follow my musical scribbling realize I often march to a slightly off beat drummer. Thus I am one who feels the three inner movements are more interesting and even fulfilling than the more stormy and grandiose first and last movements. They are among Mahler’s most sublime and intricately scored symphonic statements.I can’t decide if the second movement or third is my favorite… or maybe “Urlicht”.

The second, “Andante moderato, in the style of a Ländler”, is a delicate, flowing and subtle statement. If taken too slow and square, it degenerates into a vulgar waltz, or at worst, a static, lilt challenged (thank you for that phrase Maestro) mess. But under Stern’s capable leadership, this incredible movement flowed with a perfect tempo and just the right amount of rubato. The work’s scherzo “In ruhig fließender Bewegung” (With quietly flowing movement) was appropriately ghostly, tinged with irony and even humor. The KCS trumpets were magnificent in the strange, off kilter waltz episode about half way through the movement. The clear acoustics and Stern’s attention to detail allowed us to hear all the strings and harps that are also moving behind the brass. The powerful final “death cry” brought this demonic section to a screeching halt, just as Mahler wanted.

Picky note: the rute or bundle of reeds Mahler calls for in this movement was just right; a part of the texture and not a jarring slap. I listen for this and have dismissed performances of this fascinating movement if the rute wakes me from my reverie.  Also, am I the only one who can channel Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” while hearing this movement? Those who can, know what I am talking about… those who can’t need not bother.

The short “Urlicht” movement was, in my most humble opinion, the most sublime example of the vocal art I have ever heard in Kansas City. As when I heard her perform the same part in St Louis last season, Mezzo Kelly O’Connor’s cognac colored voice just materialized from the ghostly gong stroke that closes the scherzo. Major kudos go to the KCS brass who did not muck up the serenely reverent chorale after this glorious moment, as its cross state rivals did. Maybe I am a man of few words, or more likely of simple thought, but for me “Urlicht” is the true emotional high of the work; an epiphany of understanding and hope. Every time I hear it, I am reduced to a blubbering fool. Consider it done again.

O red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How I would rather be in heaven….

In my warped world, Mahler could have ended the whole thing there. But we’d miss the excitement of the stunning finale, with the huge chorus alternately whispering and shouting, instruments parading on and off the stage, (practically an entire orchestra is placed off-stage), and a percussionist mounting a ladder to sound the dark, metallic chimes at a couple of climactic moments. I was concerned that such a large chorus would not be able to negotiate the more quiet and introspective passages, but they did with clear diction and subtle power, although the opening “Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n” at its best a hushed, expectant whisper, was a bit too forceful. Soprano Jessica Rivera soared over the massed choral voices in her brief but essential part. Sadly, the new Cassavant Organ is not ready and we had to settle for the feeble electronic organ for the subterranean pedal points at the end.

The fine acoustics, spacious stage and choral loft certainly helped, but I am sure Stern, the orchestra and chorus would have provided us with just as fine and committed a performance anywhere they performed.

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