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Andris Nelsons conducts Mahler’s Second Symphony

Andris Nelsons conducts Mahler’s Second Symphony
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15 Dec 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Andris Nelsons

MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig, Lucy Crowe, Gerhild Romberger

  • Maija Einfelde
    Lux aeterna for mixed choir, chime bells and vibraphone

    MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig choir

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 2 in C minor “Resurrection”

    Lucy Crowe soprano, Gerhild Romberger contralto, MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig choir, Risto Joost chorus master

Of all occasions, it was at the funeral of Hans von Bülow, the first chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, that Gustav Mahler came up with the brilliant idea for his Second Symphony. The composition was intended to depict nothing less than the entire universe: the lofty and the humble, tradition and avant-garde, contemplation and drama, pastoral serenity and demonic grotesques, funeral marches and dances, songs and chorales, death and resurrection. Mahler had been looking for a suitable form for his all-embracing work of art for a long time. And then he attended this funeral: “The choir, in the organ-loft, sang the Klopstock Resurrection chorale,” he wrote. “It was like a flash of lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind!” Klopstock’s words confirmed for Mahler what he had long been considering: to use a chorus in the final movement, along with solo soprano and alto vocalists.

In this five-movement symphony, Mahler brings together a variety of genres – symphony, tone poem, symphonic cantata – and in doing so, blows the usual formal scheme apart. The opening movement, which is characterised by a sombre, march-like main theme and a lyrical, seemingly celestial secondary theme, describes the funeral of a loved one. It forms the counterpart to the great choral finale which follows on from apocalyptic tones in Klopstock’s hymnal poem Resurrection. The three short middle movements take the listener to completely different worlds: to a cheerful dance, to fish in the water, and the prayer scene of an innocent, devout soul. In the third and fourth movements, Mahler integrates two of his Wunderhorn songs, Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt and Urlicht. For the premiere, the composer engaged the Berliner Philharmoniker who initially presented the first three movements in March 1895, and the entire symphony the following December. The press responded to the monumentally orchestrated work with incomprehension. It was not music, but “cacophony, scandal, nonsense, turmoil”.

With Andris Nelsons – who in addition to his chief position with the Boston Symphony Orchestra is also Gewandhauskapellmeister in Leipzig since February 2018, and who is joined for this concert programme by the MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig, the soprano Lucy Crowe and alto Gerhild Romberger – we have a conductor at the helm of the Berliner Philharmoniker who was a fan of Gustav Mahler’s music from an early age. “This music speaks so closely to me,” he confesses. “There is everything in his music, from naive childishness to the greatest catastrophe, in his symphonies is a whole world.”

“It will lead you to God”

Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony: Mysticism beyond the bounds of all religions

Maija Einfelde’s Lux aeterna

Whether she sets works by Aeschylus, the pantheistic poems of Fricis Bārda or texts from the Latin liturgy, in both her large and small vocal works Maija Einfelde, who was a student of the distinguished Latvian symphonist Jānis Ivanovs, always questions the position of human beings in the universe, their purpose beyond the narrower spheres of life. Although her music never denies its connection with traditional harmony, it also borders on regions of a dissonant, harsh tonal world at times. Her choral piece Lux aeterna, taken from the text of the Catholic requiem Mass, is heard in a version for chorus accompanied by vibraphone and glockenspiel at these concerts, but, like so many of Einfelde’s works, it also exists in other versions: for a cappella chorus and for chorus and orchestra. Common to all three versions is a solemn musical language which allows few harmonic and dynamic changes. The name of the Lord is invoked twice – Lux aeterna and the other sections of the Latin requiem assume the eternal presence of God as an incontrovertible fact of faith.

Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony

Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, on the other hand, which was completed in 1894, did not achieve its goal until after fierce struggles and upsets. It is one of the works from that time with the most possible interpretations and encouraged both Mahler’s supporters and enemies to offer bizarre explanations of its religious message. Referring to the purely musical form of the work, contemporaries mentioned influences of Berlioz, Bruckner and Wagner, although they overemphasized individual aspects, such as the massive orchestral forces à la Berlioz. Less frequently, they noted an emulation of Beethoven, namely the Ninth Symphony. Mahler was particularly afraid of this criticism, but the overall conception of his Second does strongly resemble the model developed by Beethoven: a huge, tragic-demonic first movement, followed by inner movements which lead to bright, seraphic realms and, finally, an expansive choral finale with idealistic prophecies. The texts chosen by Beethoven and Mahler also seem to show affinities, but only because Mahler considerably shortened Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode and added his own lines. For example, the two closing choruses are similar in that they both invoke a nameless God – Mahler deleted Klopstock’s reference to Jesus.

Since Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock was a decidedly Christian poet whose songs were found in every Protestant hymnal, the use of this Ode by a Jewish composer who had converted to Catholicism must have provoked endless discussion. Mahler himself never commented on his conversion, but he felt compelled to describe the intentions behind the “Resurrection” Symphony several times. In a letter from 1896 he wrote: “Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Is all this merely a great, horrible jest? – We must resolve these questions somehow or other ... and that answer I give in the last movement.”

Which resurrection is meant?

The finale of the Second Symphony ends with a triumphant proclamation: “I shall die so as to live! / Rise again, yes, you will rise again, / My heart, in the twinkling of an eye! / What you have conquered, / Will bear you to God.” These are Mahler’s words, not Klopstock’s, and they are puzzling. Which resurrection is meant? The Jewish, Christian or Islamic? Is Mahler perhaps referring to Far Eastern teachings, which were familiar to him as a reader of Jean Paul and Schopenhauer? Since Mahler’s extensive library did not survive, it is difficult to provide literary evidence. Even with better information, however, the derivation of a musical work based on reading experiences would be vague and hypothetical.

If study of the literary and ideological background cannot help resolve the mysteries of the “Resurrection” Symphony, it is possible to a certain extent with the help of the music. After all, Mahler only supplied additional text to Klopstock’s Ode in order to set it to music. Furthermore, every notation has autonomous significance. And it is conspicuous here that he accentuates a particular word several times in the composition – the word “God”. The chorus and vocal soloists approach it in unison, hesitate, are speechless in the face of the unspeakable, and cannot articulate “God” until after a bewildered silence, but then utter it three times with steadily increasing joy. The closing exultation of the orchestra follows, intoned with every conceivable means. The title “Resurrection” Symphony did not originate with Mahler; the intellectual and compositional focus of the work is not the resurrection – it is only of importance because it leads to God.

Brief pauseslong silence

The first movement of the “Resurrection” Symphony is an orchestral funeral ode, beginning with a sombre, despairing funeral march that returns four times during the 20-minute Allegro maestoso, each time varied melodically. A choral motif recalling the early Christian Dies Irae is of comparable significance. The key of C minor dominates at first, then there are several startling plunges into E flat minor during the movement, which has a two-part development section, but also nostalgic, occasionally triumphant visions in B major and C major. The coda alternates between major and minor chords, leaving behind a feeling of utter helplessness in the face of death. The original version of this movement was a symphonic work entitled Todtenfeier Funeral Rite, composed in 1888.

Mahler called for a five-minute pause after the first movement. In doing so, he fuelled the suspicion that the work lacked a cohesive form, that it was rather a “symphonic suite”. Such allegations are completely unfounded. Like the First Symphony, the Second is also bound together by a host of motivic, harmonic – and especially intellectual – elements of unity. There is one exception, however: the second movement, a leisurely Andante moderato, seems to be completely out of place. This contrast was deliberate on the part of the composer. In a letter from 1903 he explained why such an intermezzo was needed here as a discrepancy: “While the first, third, fourth and fifth movements hang together thematically and spiritually, the second movement stands alone and interrupts, in a sense, the stern and inexorable sequence of events.” In a sense – for here, as well, in one of the trio sections, there is unbridled protest against mortality.

Just as in the First Symphony, the scherzo of the Second is also an orchestral song without voices. From the cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) Mahler used the song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt(St Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes), also in C minor, an ironic, sarcastic street ballad steeped in a kind of gallows humour, according to which even the best intentions are not able to change the way of the world. The bitter truth is presented in the form of a Ländler, at first quite innocuous but soon evoking apocalyptic visions that anticipate the last movement. The finale is preceded by the wonderfully intimate Urlicht(Primeval Light), which is based on words from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and sung by the alto soloist. After jarring artistic devices, recurrences of the nihilistic mood of the first movement, a strange march played by an offstage orchestra, imploring calls from the woodwinds and Elysian birdsongs, there is finally a mystical proclamation of the resurrection, an invocation to the unfathomably distant God whom no religion understands, not Judaism and not Christianity, but whom Mahler came as close to in his greatest symphony as only Bruckner, Beethoven and Bach before him.

Volker Tarnow

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Andris Nelsons is music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (since autumn 2014) and Gewandhauskapellmeister in Leipzig (since February 2018). Born in 1978 into a family of musicians in Riga, he began his career as a trumpeter in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera. After completing his conducting studies in Riga, he became a student of Alexander Titov in St. Petersburg; besides attending masterclasses with Neeme Järvi and Jorma Panula, Mariss Jansons is his most important mentor. From 2003 to 2007 Andris Nelsons was music director of the Latvian National Opera, from 2006 to 2009 principal conductor with the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford, and from 2008 to 2015 he took on the same role with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Andris Nelsons regularly conducts performances at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and at the Bayreuth Festival, where he made his debut as conductor of Lohengrin, in a production directed by Hans Neuenfels, in 2010. Furthermore, he regularly works with such internationally renowned orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. The 2018/19 season is marks Nelsons’ final season (of three) as Artist in Residence at the Konzerthaus Dortmund, and his first in the same position at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie.He first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 2010; his most recent appearance was in September 2016 in three concerts including works by Debussy and Varèse as well as Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

Lucy Crowe, born in Staffordshire (England), studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, to which she was appointed a “Fellow” in 2014. One of the leading lyric sopranos of her generation, the singer has appeared as Adele (Die Fledermaus) and Servilia (La clemenza di Tito) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and as Eurydice (Orphée et Eurydice), Adina (L’elisir d’ amore ), Susanna (Le nozze di Figaro), Gilda (Rigoletto) and Belinda (Dido and Aeneas) at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London. Further engagements have taken her to Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, English National Opera and the Glyndebourne Festival, where she has enjoyed great success in roles such as Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier), Rosina (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Dona Isabel (The Indian Queen), Poppea (Agrippina), Micaëla (Carmen) and Vixen Sharp-Ears. As a much sought-after concert singer, Lucy Crowe has worked with leading orchestras and conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Emmanuelle Haïm, Andris Nelsons, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Sir Simon Rattle. Guest appearances include at the Aldeburgh Festival, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York and the Salzburg Festival; she has also given recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall, New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. With the Berliner Philharmoniker, Lucy Crowe made her debut in October 2017 in the title role of Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning LittleVixen, she last appeared with the orchestra in May 2018 in Mozart’s C minor Mass, conducted by Daniel Harding.

Gerhild Romberger was born and raised in Emsland in Germany, and initially studied to be a school music teacher at the Hochschule für Musik Detmold before graduating in singing under Heiner Eckels. She additionally attended courses in lieder interpretation with Mitsuko Shirai and Hartmut Höll. Since 2003 she has been a professor of singing at the Hochschule für Musik in Detmold. The mezzo-soprano has always concentrated on concert singing: the main focus of her activities are lieder recitals and her involvement in contemporary music. The singer’s repertoire includes all the major alto and mezzo-soprano roles in oratorio and concert music, from the Baroque to 20th century works. Important engagements in recent years included working together with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Herbert Blomstedt, with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Riccardo Chailly and concerts with Manfred Honeck. Furthermore she performed with the Vienna and Bamberg Symphony Orchestras (under Daniel Harding), at La Scala (under Franz Welser-Möst) and with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. She sang at the opening festival of the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie in Mahler’s Second with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra under the baton of Thomas Hengelbrock, and in Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s First Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic (conductor: Ingo Metzmacher). Gerhild Romberger made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2012 in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, the conductor was Herbert Blomstedt; she last appeared in concerts of the orchestra in May 2018; Mikko Franck conducted Schumann’s Paradise and the Peri.

The MDR Rundfunkchor (Central German Radio Chorus) based in Leipzig is ARD’s largest professional concert choir looking back on a long and rich tradition. Its musical profile was shaped in no small way by its first post-war music director, Herbert Kegel, under whose guidance the choir was soon being ranked among the finest in Europe, a position that it has maintained to the present day. Among the conductors who have worked with the ensemble are Herbert von Karajan, Kurt Masur, Colin Davis, Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle, Seiji Ozawa and Bernard Haitink. The choir appears on a regular basis with the MDR Sinfonieorchester (Central German Radio Symphony Orchestra); other artistic partner are the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Netherlands Philharmonic. The choir’s repertory also includes a cappella pieces from almost one thousand years of musical history. World premieres and local premieres of countless works are adding to its reputation as a specialist in contemporary music. In 2015 Risto Joost became the choir’s new music director; his predecessors include such names as Dietrich Knothe, Gert Frischmuth, Jörg-Peter Weigle and Howard Arman. Almost two hundred recordings on LP and CD document its wide-ranging activities. Tours have taken the Central German Radio Chorus to leading music centres and festivals throughout Europe and as far afield as Israel and Japan. The MDR Rundfunkchor first performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker as early as September 1990; most recently, they appeared with the orchestra in performances of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder in October 2013, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

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