MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection” – Barbara Kilduff, soprano / Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano /National Choir “Rinat” / Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir / Ihud Choir /Israel Philharmonic Orchestra / James Levine – Helicon Classics 02-9634 (2 discs), TT 85:00 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
The Mahler First Symphony is sometimes called the Titan because the composer based it on the plot of the 1800 novel of the same name by Jean Paul Richter. I say plot although most modern readers would probably be hard-pressed to find a plot in Jean Paul’s discursive echt-Romantic novels. Be that as it may, a subtext to the First Symphony was a failed romance that troubled Mahler enough to build a grand apotheosis, complete with quotations from the Halleluiah Chorus, into the finale of the symphony. At least musically the composer was able to snatch victory from the jaws of amatory defeat. He later wrote that he conceived the Second Symphony as a funeral march for the hero (presumably himself) of the First. And so the Resurrection’s first movement is a grand and sober funeral march in sonata-allegro form though the second theme introduces tender, more reflective emotions into the movement.
From the start, Mahler had a plan for the middle movements. He would turn to his earlier setting of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, specifically Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (“Saint Anthony of Padua Preaches to the Fishes”) and Urlicht (“Primal Light”). However, the finale stymied him until he attended the 1894 memorial service for his friend and colleague the music critic Hans von Bülow. At the service, Mahler heard a rendition of the chorale Aufsteh’n (“Rise Again”) by German poet Friedrich Klopstock, and immediately he knew that he had found the text of the finale of his symphony as well as its subtitle, Resurrection.
The result is a vast symphony following the tried-and-true Romantic program of tragedy-to-triumph, though it’s anything but compact as models such as the Beethoven Fifth. In form and trajectory, it’s closer to the Beethoven Ninth, with a long choral finale wherein the promise of the song sung by the mezzo in the Urlicht fourth movement is fulfilled. In this movement, a despairing human exults that she will return to God and His light even though turned away by a guardian angel.
Despite its length and complexity, the Second Symphony has a more coherent program than that of the First and represents an advance on that wonderfully precocious work. Still—and even though there have been many great performances of the Second in the concert hall and on disc—it’s not easy to pull off interpretively, and any halfway decent live recording of the work must be applauded as something of an achievement. Thus it’s a pleasure to report that James Levine’s recording with the Israel Philharmonic is much more than that, a cogent and powerful presentation of the work thanks to dedicated work by all involved, including the soloists and three choirs.
In the first movement, Levine does indulge in some gratuitous rubatos (in the gentle second theme) and an unfortunately hokey decelerando in the plunging figure at the end of the coda. But mostly his interpretation is without affectation and displays his superb abilities, as a master opera conductor, at scene painting. Of his two soloists, the great Christa Ludwig shows herself still in command of a powerful and precise instrument, though her first entry is just a bit shaky. I’m less pleased with soprano Barbara Kilduff, who has a nice voice but a quavery sort of vibrato that doesn’t mesh 100 percent with Ludwig’s purer delivery in the finale. But the large choral forces turn in a fine performance, as does the orchestra for the most part. The lower strings aren’t quite as firm or warm, as they might be in this symphony where Mahler demands much of them, but mostly the orchestra is well up to its task.
The recording, too, is very good, especially for its vintage (1989). It presents a big, handsome sound that’s just a tad lacking in stage depth. There’s the inevitable bit of hiss in quieter passages and a too-obvious edit in the last movement. But the audience is mercifully still, and there are few distracting noises from the stage. In all, the sound engineers acquit themselves as admirably as the musicians.
The result is a performance and recording that are more than just a memento of the occasion. This is a fine and welcome addition to the Mahler discography.
In Memoriam… a fine tribute to Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire