La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Mahler’s Resurrection Opens 2012-2013 OSM Season in Montreal

OSM 2011-2012 Maison symphonique (photo: Marita)

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in c minor "Resurrection"
Anke Vondung, mezzo-soprano
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM)/Kent Nagano
Maison symphonique, Place des Arts
Montréal, Quebec
September 5, 2012

What a pleasure it is to walk through the underground entrance into Place des Arts in Montréal and not find the usual obstacle course of construction hoardings! The work had been going on for so long that it had begun to seem normal, but today entrances to all the venues are clear and well-lit and the floors are polished. Too bad nothing could be done about the low ceilings.

At Orchestre symphonique de Montréal’s (OSM) grand opening in its new home last year, only the auditorium of the Maison symphonique was finished. Most of the lobbies, restrooms and hallways were still works in progress. Although the interiors are now finished down to the last detail, the entrance to OSM’s new venue is still barely functional at best.

After a year of playing in the hall and making all the necessary adjustments, the orchestra seems more or less settled into its new home. No doubt about it, the Maison symphonique is a vast improvement over Salle Wilfred Pelletier; on the other hand, after hearing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony No. 2 last week, I still have mixed feelings about the quality of sound in the hall.

On The Question of Acoustics
A common problem in new halls is the lack of bass response. Not so here. Basses and cellos tore into the opening bars of the symphony with accuracy and gusto and their sound was rich and clear. No problem at the bottom end in Maison symphonique. The two sets of timpani required for this piece sounded wonderful, and had plenty of presence in all dynamic ranges. The choir too came across as nicely blended, with ample presence. The Maison symphonique, thankfully, was modeled after the old European concert halls, with lots of wood on floors, walls, ceilings and seats and much smaller than many of the newer and mostly unsuccessful concert halls elsewhere - all features that traditionally have contributed to more satisfying acoustics.

On the down side, I would say that the first and second violins don’t project well at all in this hall and that is a serious matter since they so often carry much of the musical argument. I have also been disappointed on several occasions in the sound of the softer passages played by principal trumpet Paul Merkelo - especially so in this Mahler performance. The problem was not Merkelo’s playing - his many solos were superbly executed – but rather the hall’s acoustics, which make the quiet trumpet solo passages seem so “forward” instead of intimate the way they should be. The two harps faced the same problem. Nagano might want to consider re-seating the orchestra to try to overcome these problems. The brass certainly don’t need to be on risers and might blend more easily if they were on floor level with the rest of the orchestra.

While this performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony was not a first in Montréal - Nagano last conducted it with the OSM just five years ago - it certainly provided a festive opening to the 2012-2013 season.

Reading of Resurrection Stalls at Contemplation
Although Nagano has clearly demonstrated a real affection for and an ability to sort out the many technical issues in the music of Mahler, the Resurrection Symphony is not just about playing the notes; it is about expressing the mysteries of life and death and ultimately, it’s about belief in life after death - in resurrection. In a truly “great” performance, audience members can’t help but be swept up in Mahler’s struggle with faith and in the ecstatic fervor of belief in life everlasting.

In the performance I heard, Nagano seemed to take a detached view of these matters, carefully presenting all the arguments in the manner of a professor, while avoiding personal involvement. This approach seemed to me confirmed, when, after the final resounding chords had ended, Nagano signaled the audience to hold their applause, to first “contemplate” what they had heard. This gesture from Maestro Nagano also signaled his misunderstanding of what surely was Mahler’s intention with these final chords, which, in the final pages of the symphony, he builds to a climax that not only affirms resurrection but moves the audience to join in the rapture of Klopstock’s inspiring poetry and Mahler’s glorious musical vision. In a truly “great” performance of this symphony, a cathartic release through spontaneous applause is inevitable after the expression of such profound emotion.

This is not to say that this performance didn’t have its moments. I have already mentioned the effectiveness of the opening bars. Another memorable passage was the first entrance of the chorus; it was beautiful and otherworldly. The chorus was also in tune and well-balanced. The OSM Chamber Choir is new this season and provides the professional core of the much larger OSM Chorus. We can hear the improvement already and chorus master Andrew Megill surely deserves much of the credit.

Giving Mahler the Sound He Prescribed
There is a long tradition in classical music for offstage instruments – think of the offstage trumpet in Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 Overture – and Mahler was very fond of this device and used it in several of his symphonies. In the Second Symphony there are extra trumpets and horns that make offstage contributions and then they come onstage to join the rest of the orchestra for the final peroration.

There is also a passage in the fourth movement that may or may not require offstage trumpets and bassoons. Mahler’s instructions in the score at this point are somewhat ambiguous. What he appears to want here is a balance between the mezzo and the trumpets that allows the voice to come through easily. To my ears, in this performance the off-stage trumpets sounded too distant. A better solution might have been to use cloth mutes on the trumpets – essentially bags over their bells – to muffle their sound while allowing them to remain strong harmonic partners.

The final pages of the Resurrection Symphony are intended to be powerful: chorus and orchestra fortissimo and with lots of extra instruments. Bells are part of Mahler’s vision and he would have preferred church bells if he could have gotten them into the hall! Most performances of the Resurrection today use tubular bells in the final section, but some orchestras do have much larger and more sonorous bells at their disposal for such works.

Maybe Next Time...
In this Nagano/OSM performance of Mahler’s Resurrection, some of the instruments called for in the finale were either underrepresented or not represented at all. Whatever passed for “bells” barely registered, and the organ required by Mahler was omitted entirely. 

Perhaps Nagano will schedule another performance of the Resurrection Symphony in 2014 when an organ is finally installed in Maison symphonique.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: The Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcastClassical Airs.

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