Mahler Resurrection Symphony, BSO at Poole Lighthouse

Ligeti: Lontano
Mahler: Symphony No. 2

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, leader Amyn Merchant
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus (dir Gavin Carr)

Kirill Karabits, conductor
Lise Lindstrom, soprano
Nadine Weissmann, mezzo-soprano

THE BSO’s first concert of a new season is always something special.  Mahler’s epic and monumental 2nd Symphony, an overwhelmingly positive affirmation of faith in the life eternal, is usually quite enough to fill an evening.  Here a packed and buzzing Lighthouse audience were treated to a bonus starter, in the shape of what has become a classic of mid-twentieth century avant-garde modernism: György Ligeti’s Lontano.

Lontano (meaning ‘far away’) dates from 1967, and it showcases the composer’s technique of ‘micropolyphony’ where the orchestra play dense clusters of notes which evolve slowly in pitch and volume rather than resolving into anything like themes or tunes.  Lontano has been used by film directors to provide atmospheric soundtracks for sci-fi and horror movies: other Ligeti scores were used memorably in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

Karabits and the BSO gave an intriguing performance.  I was often left wondering just how a particular sound was built: it is incredible that composers seem to be able to endlessly create sounds that one has never heard before from the finite number of combinations of instruments within an orchestra.  The audience listened with rapt attention, right through to the scored silence at the end.  This was an original and imaginative preparation for the main event.

Mahler’s 2nd Symphony dates from the late nineteenth century.  Subtitled ‘Resurrection’, it is nothing less than a sound-picture of the Last Judgement and a confident affirmation that death is not an end but merely a gateway to a rendezvous with the Almighty.  Mahler calls for a huge time scale (80 minutes) and huge resources (118 orchestral players, both on and off-stage, a large chorus and two female solo singers).

The sheer volume of sound in the hard acoustic of the Lighthouse was at times overwhelming, but in an entirely good way: the Last Judgement should inspire awe.  After the first movement’s horror at the reality of death, the second and third movements look back over life before death, using Austrian ländler dance rhythms to evoke both nostalgic happiness and bustling futility.  All this is purely instrumental, but Mahler now introduces a mezzo-soprano to proclaim faith in the afterlife in the form of a setting of the folk-poem Urlicht.  This was warmly delivered by the German mezzo Nadine Weissmann.

There follows a lengthy orchestral evocation of Judgement Day, including a march section in which the dead triumphantly stream from their graves.  The BSO’s playing and Karabits’s secure control were immensely impressive throughout.  The moment when Anna Pyne’s flute and Owain Bailey’s piccolo duet onstage while off-stage brass echo in the distance was heart-stopping.  The long-awaited entry of the massed Bournemouth Symphony Chorus arrived, hushed and reverential to start with but full-throated and assertive later, with Lise Lindstrom’s soprano soaring angelically above.

The experience of hearing this insanely ambitious but triumphantly realised symphony live was deeply moving.  If any readers associate ‘classical music’ with Classic FM tootling inoffensively as relaxing background music, I urge them sincerely to flock to the Lighthouse for a taste of the real thing.

Don’t miss the opportunity to hear the concert for yourself on BBC iPlayer:


Posted in Reviews on .