BBC Proms #49 – Louise Alder, Dame Sarah Connolly, CBSO Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony

Prom 49 – Louise Alder, Dame Sarah Connolly, CBSO Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Birtwistle Donum Simoni MMXVIII (2018)
Mahler Symphony no.2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888-1894)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Wednesday 24 August 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photos (c) Chris Christodoulou

“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”

The words of Gustav Mahler were never more appropriate than in the context of this exceptional BBC Proms concert, as Sir Simon Rattle and assembled forces from London and Birmingham threw body and soul into a spectacular performance of the composer’s Symphony no.2.

This, Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony, puts its listener through the emotional wringer on a journey inhabiting life and death itself. The work has become a calling card for Rattle, too – he marked the opening of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall with a memorable performance in 1991, and took his leave of the CBSO with the same piece. Here, as he prepares to step down as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, he was marking the turning of a page through a move to pastures new in Bavaria, where he will become Chief Conductor of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Bavarian Radio Chorus.

The pastures were a standout feature of this performance – but we began in turmoil, the huge first movement funeral march rumbling into gear with lines hewn from granite in the lower strings. Rattle pushes this movement forward much more than he once did, keeping a firm hand on the tiller, but with immediate and full immersion in Mahler’s thoughts. As the first movement took shape the horrors of death revealed themselves – along with hopes of sunnier climes through some beautifully shaded rustic scenes. Yet the chill winds kept returning, ultimately sweeping these away as the movement closed in their bleak acceptance.

Many accounts of the ‘Resurrection’ lose their focus at this point, but not this one. Instead we had a balletic triple time Ländler, danced with grace as the feather-light strings had their charming way. The main theme swelled like a newly budding flower, and although ghoulish reminders of the first movement persisted, this was the abiding impression. As Rattle pressed on without a break, however, the reveries were abruptly quashed by the hammer and tongs of the third movement Scherzo. Here the music twisted and turned sharply, the LSO responding to its conductor with peerless virtuosity in music of fire and brimstone. Percussion, wind and brass were superb.

Then, as the music teetered on the point of collapse, it was time to be borne away with the consoling tones of Dame Sarah Connolly (above, right). A consummate Mahlerian, she sang with compelling strength and grace, a powerful stage presence in league with Rattle, who presided over accompaniment of the greatest clarity. Connolly’s Urlicht was beautifully judged, taking us ever nearer to the wondrous entry of the choir.

Now time stood still. The audience, especially in the arena, were rooted to the spot at the massed choirs of the CBSO Chorus and London Symphony Chorus, singing as one in magically hushed tones. As the finale took shape it was by turns earth-moving and tender. Scenes flashed before the eyes, and an especially vivid episode from brass and percussion in the gallery observed a village-band intimacy. Here the Royal Albert Hall was utilised to its full potential, managing the wide scope of Mahler’s vision to perfection.

At the centre of this apocalyptic finale, percussion depicted the rising of the dead and the release of their chains, Rattle intentionally dragging his feet here to heighten the seismic impact. And then we were free, the resurrection itself met with blazing colours all around as the choirs sang Friedrich Klopstock’s text ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst di’ (‘Rise again, yea rise again, shalt thou’) as though their lives depended on it. Was it fanciful to suggest three years’ worth of pent-up emotion being released at this point? Probably not, when you consider the day-to-day roles of the choral singers themselves – carers, key workers, parents and children alike – with all finding the time and the need to bring us this music of the utmost quality.

Great credit should go to chorus director Simon Halsey for securing such discipline and humanity in the texts, and to soprano Louise Alder (both above with Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Simon Rattle). Alder sang above the masses with perfectly judged dynamics and phrasing, like Connolly fully aware of the scope of her role. Organist Richard Gowers added the icing on the cake, underpinning the throng with ideally judged balance.

This was a performance to talk about for years to come, a throwing-open of the doors to proclaim that music can – really – triumph over pretty much anything, the ‘Resurrection’ symphony, clearing everything in its path.

As an upbeat to the symphony we heard a short gift to Rattle from Sir Harrison Birtwistle, to whose memory the Prom was dedicated.  Donum Simoni MMXVIII was typical of its composer, a spiky and even snarky postcard firing out missives from the (superb) percussion section against barbed comments from wind and brass. Lasting barely four minutes, it served its function well – but for tonight, as Mahler would have wished, the symphony was everything.

You can listen to Sir Simon Rattle’s recording of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony on Spotify below, where the CBSO Chorus and Symphony Orchestra are joined by soloists Arleen Auger and Dame Janet Baker:

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