Concert Review: Mahler Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’ – Orchestra of the Music Makers, Maior Chorus, Chan Tze Law

GUSTAV MAHLER Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” 

Chan Tze Law conductor
Siobhan Stagg soprano 
Caitlin Hulcup mezzo-soprano 
Maior Chorus(Toh Ban Sheng, chorus master)

Esplanade Concert Hall
18 August 2018

Review by Derek Lim

Mahler is played so often nowadays in Singapore that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra thought it fit to label their concert happening next week with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s First as a ‘Familiar Favourites’ concert. Tonight’s very technically polished performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony was also the Orchestra of the Music Makers’ (OMM), and their music director, Chan Tze Law’s, second attempt at this wide-ranging, complex piece. Remarkably for a largely amateur orchestra, they already have four of his symphonies under their belt.

Their first performance in 2010 (available on CD and Spotify) featured a straightforward take on the symphony as a whole, with a particularly successful Finale.

Tonight’s performance saw a deepening of Chan’s previous interpretation – more interesting for sure, but also much more interventionist, and not always in a good way, especially in the opening movement. OMM was on good form right from the opening notes, with committed playing, and if there were jitters, they quickly settled in.

Chan’s slow to middle of the road tempo in the introduction soon broadened markedly in the lyrical second theme. In stronger hands this might have worked better but here, propulsion suffered and the lyrical sections became more dreamlike than yearning – phrases begged to be moulded. Elsewhere, there was distracting (and predictable) signposting in the form of huge ritardandos at the end of nearly every major section. This hurt the narrative flow and inevitability of the piece’s organic development – a little too much rhetoric and too little focus on the long line.

At the first movement climax, the entire orchestra repeats a single, scarily dissonant chord in a dotted rhythm (magnificently sounded by the OMM) – the dotted rhythm builds up the tension, which is then released in the final two chords which end the section. Here, Chan (right) prolonged the last two chords to more than twice their original length – an interesting effect, but one which makes the collapse seem more ‘planned’ than inevitable – psychologically something quite different, especially when you consider the free-fall descending chromatic scales on the winds just before them.
Applause from the audience broke the stillness of the contemplation that Mahler intended, made worse by further applause of encouragement that greeted the two vocal soloists. Never mind that – the Andante moderato Ländler that followed was beautifully played, rewarded with the audience’s rapt attention. String playing was ravishing, especially from the cello’s co-principal melody, which was unhurried, comfortably stated and just lovely. A rather bald transition to the pizzicato section led to a gently bucolic rendition of the plucked strings themselves.

St Anthony of Padua’s riveting sermon was fishy

Mahler’s droll Scherzo, using the melody from his Wunderhorn lied Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (“St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fish”), was next. The opening timpani flourish was stated strongly enough, but the strings were not quite up to Chan’s fluid tempo, with Mahler’s many written accents – representing the fishes’ sudden twists and turns – lost, losing that spiky character of the music, while the winds had trouble keeping up as well, flubbing at times. Overall this movement was played quite ‘straight’, to the detriment of that melting trumpet quartet melody – beautifully played, no doubt, but if there was any Mahler that called for schmaltz, this was it.

A passing breath control issue aside (and just for one line), mezzo Caitlin Hulcup’s (right) performance of Urlicht went right into the heart of the music. Hers is not an Earth-Mother alto, but her phrasing was just lovely and deeply moving, with Chan’s accompaniment attentive and always supporting her line.

From then, it was attacca into the Finale and home free for Chan and OMM. Some performances of M2 are well-played up till the Finale but falter toward the end. Not so here – the orchestra and conductor managed their resources admirably, and if some brass players’ embouchures suffered, the sheer energy mustered as a whole was infectious. The Cry of Despair that opens the Finale was as cosmic as any, the off-stage brass chorales spot on for both kleine and grosse Appells (spellbinding!) and the percussion (at the big crescendo) made such a din that I feared the stage would split open. Against this backdrop, the soloists made their mark admirably, with Hulcup persuasive in ‘O glaube’.

Three flies in the ointment of this movement. First, the march that followed said earth-splitting (marked Kräftig) was slowed down deliberately for some reason – psychologically not quite in tune with the imagery of the dead beings finally free to roam the earth. Second, the 215-strong choir was simply too loud at the initial Aufersteh’n. Third, the off-stage bands, though well-coordinated, were often too audible.

None of these affected in the least the absolute ecstasy and stratospheric heights that Mahler, Chan Tze Law, the superbly prepared Maior Chorus singing their hearts out, and OMM took the audience to. The final coda was well-judged, with the collective forces harnessing their energy to bring the symphony to its thrilling conclusion.

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