Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, leader Amyn Merchant
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, chorus master Gavin Carr
Conductor: David Hill
Lisa Milne, Soprano
Jennifer Johnston, Mezzo-Soprano
MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”
THE word ‘apocalyptic’ was used in the BSO’s publicity for this concert: this sounds like hyperbole, but the word is precise and accurate. The definition of an apocalypse is “a prophetic revelation, especially concerning a cataclysm in which the forces of good permanently triumph over the forces of evil”, and that is no less than Gustav Mahler’s purpose in his astonishing second symphony. First performed in 1895 after a seven-year gestation period, the symphony called for unprecedented musical resources deployed over an unprecedented time-scale. Lasting eighty minutes, the symphony calls for well over a hundred orchestral players, an off-stage band of eleven, an organ, a large chorus and two soprano soloists. Marshalled under the secure and decisive baton of conductor David Hill, these gigantic forces made an overwhelming impact on the packed audience. When one’s usual access to this music is via radio or a home stereo system, the emotional impact of live music-making of this scope and ambition is impressive in the extreme.
Mahler’s plan was to use symphonic form to produce a meditation on the meaning and purpose of life and our ultimate destiny. Such questions were urgent ones to the late nineteenth-century mind in the light of the shaking of old Biblical certainties: in Mahler’s words: “What next? What is life and what is death? Why did you suffer? Why did you live?” Mahler’s answer is ultimately affirmative: we may die, but we will be resurrected and will be lead to God. But the road charted by the symphony to this consolation is rocky in the extreme: before resurrection we must pass through suffering, death, cynicism and despair.
David Hill’s grasp of the overall architecture of this huge score was evident from the beginning: his control of the extreme variations of tempo and dynamics (Mahler marks one passage ppppp) in the twenty-minute opening movement was unfaltering, and the orchestra followed his lead with passionate and expressive playing. The crisp attack of the ten-strong cello section at the movement’s start set the tone for a series of wonderful moments throughout the piece: one might mention the duetting of the oboe, lead violin, flute and piccolo with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston in the ‘Urlicht’ movement, the way the regulars and the extra players had seamlessly united in all the string sections, and the deafening percussion crescendo in the final movement. The Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, singing by heart and from the heart, without the clutter of scores in front of them, excelled after their hour-long wait for their beautifully hushed entry in the final movement, before contributing full-throatedly to the final triumphant resurrection music.