Norman Stinchcombe reviews CBSO's Mahler 2

STUPENDOUS MAHLER TWO

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

This concert was billed as an end-of-season finale, a temporary farewell. When the applause, cheering and foot-stamping erupted after eighty minutes of intense, emotionally fired-up music making it felt instead like a long-anticipated, desperately hoped for homecoming. After more than two years of ruined schedules, cancellations and Covid-compromised concerts here was the platform packed with players, the choir seats brim-full with the cherished CBSO Chorus and – the final ingredient – a packed house. It was the perfect choice of work too, Mahler's 'Resurrection' Symphony; the work which opened Symphony Hall and a CBSO musical calling-card for the last forty years. By chance, or fate, the last concert here on this scale – in terms of forces, attendance and impact – was the CBSO's performance of Mahler's eighth symphony in January 2020 when we were blissfully unaware of the approaching pandemic. That evening the Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill was one of the soloists and, by pleasing irony, here she was again; her hushed 'O Röschen rot!' – sung 'Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht' (Very solemn, but simple) just as Mahler instructed – beginning the transition to the symphony's ecstatic finale. Her passionate appeal 'O glaube, mein Herz' – where she was joined by soprano Janai Brugger – was persuasive enough to make believers of us all, at least while the spell lasted.

In these days of the media-hyped, meretricious and flash, this performance was a vindication (if such were needed) of the great Kapellmeister tradition. German conductor Markus Stenz, tall, ramrod straight and imposing, was here to serve the music not his Instagram profile. Before a note was played a difference was visible; he had divided the violins left and right, just as Mahler would have done, aiding clarity and antiphonal interplay. What a difference it made in the second movement Ländler, all genial ruddy-cheeked affability, where the hesitating pizzicato began with the second violins on the right before moving around the string section. The playing from every department in the orchestra was tremendous – thrilling timpani crescendos and absolutely magical off-stage brass fanfares – and, for once, an orchestral outburst was the 'cry of despair' and 'death shriek' Mahler wanted. The CBSO Chorus, under Julian Wilkins, are past masters here. After their hushed entrance the moment when they stood up and the music surges overwhelmingly was a coup-de-theatre.

Norman Stinchcombe

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