If ever a conductor, new to a city orchestra and its audiences needed a suitable vehicle with which to showcase his array of talents, Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony would make a perfect choice. Drawing on some one-hundred instrumentalists and choristers, The Resurrection travels the length and breadth of human experience.
The Czech Republic’s Tomáš Hanus took up the role of WNO’s Music Director just weeks ago but a warm, responsive rapport is already evident between both parties. Gregarious facial expressions to the lightest baton gesture are used by Hanus to draw precise expression from each performer to the service of the whole.
In life, it’s the major events that have the most profound effect on our memories and emotional developments. Part one of this symphony refers to a funeral and how it concentrates the mind. Is there life after death? Melodic themes are introduced during a paced funeral march. As a stand-alone movement written some five years ahead of the rest, Mahler originally instructed a five-minute break between the first and second movements. In keeping with modern practice, Hanus invites the two soloists, soprano Rebecca Evans and mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, to take their places during a two-minute or so break.
The second movement is based on folk tunes in a slow, lilting 3/4, suggesting warm memories and good times spent with the loved one just buried. Mahler described the third movement scherzo as “a view of life as a meaningless activity”. Musically, it comes close to slapstick in structure, summoning up thoughts of Joel Grey in the 1972 film “Cabaret”.
Expressed as “love, beauty, suffering and death” by Hanus, in a recent feature about this symphony, life’s most profound moments are here. To express the enormous scope of the subject matter and Mahler’s ambitions, instruments are in invited to stray into unfamiliar territories. Rippling swathes of pizzicato played by the entire string section, including two harps, creates an unusual texture and horns at times are played at bizarre angles to form just the sound the composer envisioned.
Cargill sings Urlicht, plaintively longing for relief from the world’s travails. Now approaching the end and with the stage silent, a ghostly ensemble can be heard from the distant backstage corridors as though it’s the life we cannot yet see. The Resurrection, the subtitle of this glorious work, promises to justify all the pain and suffering of the human life, short or long. From here, earlier themes of questions and doubts are revisited and reworked, and new themes introduced. The changes and enhancements come at a dizzying pace as everyday contentment or strife is swept away.
The already huge orchestra seems to double in size for the fifth and final movement as most sections are augmented with extra players. Joined by Karen Cargill, Rebecca Evans has been silent until now, as have the WNO Community Chorus and the mighty pipe organ built into the fabric of St David’s Hall. The gradual build towards this moment of joy and destiny that has taken us through the darkest grief, to disbelief, abandonment and despair makes this long finale one of Western Music’s greatest achievements. When all falls once more to silence, numerous encores reward all involved, not least Wales National Opera’s new Music Director Tomáš Hanus.