Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with the TSO

Toronto Symphony Music Director Peter Oundjian

It’s been a long time between Mahler 2nds with the Toronto Symphony. I heard Andrew Davis lead them with Maureen Forrester in Massey Hall, one of several cherished memories from the old days on Shuter Street, aka the 1970s. Given the recent anniversary concerts celebrating Davis’ 40 year relationship with the TSO, I saw tonight’s concert led by Music Director Peter Oundjian as an opportunity for comparisons.

I am sure I am not the only one with a long relationship with the work. Notwithstanding the few people who did the Toronto standing O –where they stand and then exit within half a minute, the sustained reception for last night’s performance was sincere. I believe this is what the TSO should be doing, the kind of work only they can offer in this city. While Tafelmusik play Beethoven, Mozart & especially baroque masters –pieces written for a small-to-medium sized orchestra–with exquisite attention to detail in a smaller space allowing for more intimacy, the late romantics such as Mahler, that require a big ensemble and a big sound? They are a perfect fit for the TSO at Roy Thomson Hall.

I had a mid-life conversion. I first encountered Mahler in the thoughtful interpretations of Otto Klemperer & Bruno Walter, whose spacious readings might be considered to be on the slow side. Later I encountered other conductors taking Mahler faster, particularly Leonard Bernstein, whose brisk readings came to be my new ideal.

I believe Oundjian leads an orchestra with a greater overall level of virtuosity, a very capable ensemble who follow his clear commands and play very fast and very accurately. For some of this performance of Mahler’s 2nd symphony I was very powerfully moved, transported by the experience.

Totenfeier, the first movement celebration of the dead, began very carefully in a tempo i would consider slow and deliberate, but gradually gathered momentum and intensity. While Oundjian permitted a certain amount of schmaltz in the use of portmanteau by the strings especially for expressive moments, (how Mahler likely would have wanted it in his own time, and an approach that orchestras didn’t use very much in the latter part of the 20th century, ie when i heard the TSO in the 1970s), the playing was so tight & disciplined as to seem to cancel out any emotional relaxation that this might have signalled. The second movement was a lovely serenade, a well-executed diversion of sublime gentleness.

We come to the third movement, one that presents certain challenges. It’s phenomenally busy, packed with voices & counter-voices, sudden changes of mood, scale (from a few concertante players to the entire orchestra belting fff). Three times (at least) the orchestra suddenly explodes into a loud tutti statement of one of the themes. For some reason each time this happened, Oundjian kicked the tempo up a notch, rather than letting all that energy emerge organically at the same tempo (which is still rather amazing in my experience). It was played with great precision and virtuosity, but I couldn’t connect to the arbitrary change of pace, that seemed manic rather than a spontaneous eruption of passion.  Even so this was a remarkable display of precision playing.

Where the opening movement –”Totenfeier”—is a celebration of the dead, the next two (which never seem to be done as Mahler requested, with a ten minute pause before the symphony continues) are like a serenade or reminiscence of earthly life, before we get down to the serious matter of the final two movements.

Violinist Jonathan Crow

Violinist Jonathan Crow

“Urlicht”, the fourth movement, began with mezzo-soprano Susan Platts singing the first note softly into the silence following the third movement. The brass choir that follows was one of the highlights of the evening, a wonderfully original phrasing that Oundjian got from his players that made the moment seem truly ceremonial. And in the back and forth between soloist and orchestra, concertmaster Jonathan Crow’s sighing portmanteaus were a stunning complement to Platts’ rich voice.

My one concern with this song was that Platts as well as soprano Erin Wall were situated partway back in the orchestra rather than in the front where I would expect to find them. In the latter portion of Urlicht, where the soloist seems to be pleading that they do not want to be pushed aside or rejected (a passage I find very moving), the urgency Platts gave almost seemed to suggest she did not believe she was being heard way back in the orchestra. But I would like to reassure her that in fact she blended really well, a sound floating wonderfully well in the space.

The last movement is like a tone poem all by itself, as one might expect of the conclusion to a symphony called “Resurrection”. If we were simply looking at impressive playing, there was nothing missing, a performance for the ages. Yet I wonder if sometimes the TSO could stand to pause, and think about dramaturgy or theatre, about what effect they’re seeking. There is a great deal of bustling in and out by players who have to participate in off-stage musical moments. These can be magical moments, if we are not confronted by musicians looking for all the world like rush hour traffic. The off-stage band that we heard can sound a bit like a lost army of souls in a ghostly dimension, a strange mix of pathetic and powerful, as the symphony comes to a kind of crisis, teetering on the edge of despair, awaiting some signals to encourage hope. This was the crispest execution of that offstage playing I’ve ever heard; and I think as such might be misguided. I alluded a few days ago to Harvey Olnick’s comments about Wagner in my review of Stewart Goodyear playing Rachmaninoff; I think the same applies here, where Mahler’s own off-staff bands likely weren’t so precise (they didn’t have video cameras, just human effort). I wonder if our ears are distorted by listening to perfect digital recordings, when a century ago things simply couldn’t be executed so well.  A messy reading of these passages carries great pathos, whereas a crisp and perfect rendition strikes me as inappropriate, and confused me somewhat.

I found that the last portion of the concert, especially when Erin Wall and the Mendelssohn Choir joined in, to be some of the most coherent music of the night. When he was working from simple song material Oundjian was at his best, both in “Urlicht” and in the stunning rendition of “Aufersteh’n”, the resurrection chorale.

The concert is to be repeated Friday night.

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