Mahler Symphony no.2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888-94)
Janai Brugger (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Markus Stenz
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 25 June 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse Photos courtesy of Beki Smith
At the end of another season by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra what could be more fitting than the symphony to have been programmed by the orchestra’s last five principal conductors, defining the Simon Rattle era and been scheduled during the majority of seasons ever since?
Tonight’s performance (and that on the previous Wednesday) was to have been conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, but maternity leave occasioned an infrequent UK appearance (at least since his highly regarded tenure with London Sinfonietta in the mid-1990s) for Markus Stenz, who has recorded a Mahler cycle with the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne as centrepiece of his discography majoring on 20th-century music and that of the post-war era. A ‘Resurrection’, indeed, where this work’s ‘darkness to light’ trajectory seemed by no means a fait accompli.
Many are the conductors who, even now, ride roughshod across the first movement’s fraught trajectory or fall victim to a deceptively sectional unfolding; under Stenz, there was no doubt as to the cohesion with which dramatic and pastoral elements were drawn into an integrated and dynamic whole. Suffused if not overloaded with pathos, those closing pages carried over the ensuing (two-minute) pause into an Andante whose alternation of the genial and ominous was pointedly but never self-consciously evident. Felicitous playing here from CBSO strings and woodwind, then by the brass in a scherzo whose barbed irony and ‘dancing on a volcano’ volatility was tangible. Stenz was right to proceed directly through the latter four movements with minimal pause – so ensuring an intensifying emotional curve into those conflicts ahead.
First, Karen Cargill made for an eloquent though not ideally steady exponent of the ‘Urlicht’ setting with its calm before the storm of the vast closing movement. Positioned at upper left of the platform, she and Janai Brugger gave of their best in a setting of Friedrich Klopstock’s (suitably Mahler-ized) hymn Die Auferstehung where the relatively lean CBSO Chorus gave notice of its long familiarity in this music. The route taken there brought out the best from the CBSO but also Stenz’s interpretive focus – the starkly contrasted orchestral episodes evincing a formal logic and expressive inclusiveness that, with playing of unfailing clarity (not least by his antiphonal placing of the violins), ensured the finale never degenerated into a sequence of dramatic tableaux – the sureness of Mahler’s symphonic reach tangible throughout its course.
At around 85 minutes, this was a spacious while never lethargic reading which positioned the work as a precursor to the existential symphonic battles ahead rather than the culmination of a symphonic lineage stretching back to Beethoven’s Fifth. Nor was there any impersonality or lack of conviction with Stenz’s approach – his grip on the formal dimensions of the outer movements being matched by his conception of the work as a cohesive and cumulative unity. The CBSO’s playing married assurance with a palpable sense of responding ‘to the moment’.
Birmingham might have waited until 1975 to hear Mahler Two, but it gave the premiere of Stanford’s Requiem back in 1897 and gives this work again when Martyn Brabbins directs the CBSO in a revival next Saturday. An event which, in itself, is of no mean significance.