Monday, 21 September 2009

Singapore Symphony Orchestra: Mahler's Resurrection Symphony / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (19 September 2009)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 September 2009.

Every performance of a Mahler symphony counts as a special event, and when a large chorus is involved, as in three of his symphonies, the ante is upped. This is the third time that Mahler’s Second Symphony “Resurrection” has been performed by the SSO since 1994, and also its best.

The orchestra has matured greatly since the last performances of the work in 2003, during Esplanade Concert Hall’s opening season. Fine-tuning of the auditorium’s acoustics has also transformed the sound from being over-reverberant to near ideal. So when low strings introduced the symphony’s opening funeral march, there was genuine depth to the bass and a palpable shudder.

Much of the credit goes to the American conductor John Nelson (left), last heard here in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in 2005, who coaxed from the orchestra and combined chorus a performance which had unusual refinement above the obligatory dramatics. The first movement developed steadily and arch-like, with any temptation for histrionics and hysteria kept tightly in check.

Control was close to perfect. There was a massive fortissimo that evaporated into the ether in a microsecond without any part losing its place. The second movement’s folk-like Ländler was kept simple and unhurried, gently increasing in detail and intensity with each run. The ensuing Scherzo was spot-on in its comic turns, revealing its grotesqueries without resorting to caricature. Attention to fine details such as these do a great performance make.

The vocal soloists were also excellent. Mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon had more to sing, radiating gratifying warmth in the fourth movement Urlicht (Primal Light) like some nascent morning sun. Blame Mahler for scoring so little for the soprano, for Nicole Cabell’s diamond-like voice emerged from and shone through the choral firmament laser-like, one of many moments to die for.

The brass department worked overtime in the cataclysmic finale, with its members marching on and off the stage, delivering their messages of doom and salvation from four corners of the hall. Many heads turned to witness this aural spectacle, which was crowned with a stupendous showing by the chorus corralled by Lim Yau, which began in restraint and quiet awe its opening words Auferstehen (Arise), before erupting into joyous soaring redemption.

There can hardly be a soul unmoved by this overwhelming musical experience.

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