The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra undertakes the vigorous endeavour of playing a Mahler each year. As far as I can remember they have already interpreted the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth Symphonies and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, with Thomas Hampson as soloist. Last night, Istanbul had the privilege to be served the Symphony no. 2 in C minor 'Resurrection' under baton of Sascha Goetzel. Not just the stage, as clearly requested by Mahler, but the concert hall too was packed, as hasn’t been the case for a while.

Sascha Goetzel © Harald Hoffmann
Sascha Goetzel
© Harald Hoffmann

Mahler had told his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner that his first four symphonies engendered everything about his life. At the opening of the Second Symphony, we stand at the funeral of the hero from Mahler's First Symphony. The first movement, which he called “der Totenfeier”, is not a tone poem as might be suggested, because Mahler wrote as a heading on the manuscript “Symphony in C minor” right away. Yet he needed six years to finish it. He kept from the idea of finishing the symphony with a chorale for quite a while, because it would have reminded audiences of Beethoven – the nightmare figure for every symphonist of the era – but at the funeral of his friend Hans von Bülow, he made up his mind to use the human voice.

Sacha Goetzel and BIPO remained faithful to the score, which is a marathon in every sense for both the orchestra and the conductor. Not in vain had Mahler instructed conductors to allow at least five minutes pause after the huge first movement, which Goetzel took accordingly. Very well executed abrupt changes in dynamics created wonderful contrasts, the nuanced playing resulting in colours and singing lines of long breaths rendered this movement dramatically exciting. Rather an intermezzo, the second movement starting with a gracefully executed Ländler aroused the desire to dance. The third movement, based on a song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn gave the opportunity for woodwinds and brass to show-off their playfulness. This was followed by the first vocal entrance: the fourth movement Urlicht. Though a bit hesitant at the beginning, mezzo-soprano Elena Zhidkova let us hear her warm, rounded voice. She masters her voice with a perfect technique consisting of very good phrasing and articulation, which became even more perceivable in the fifth movement. 

The climax of this symphony, for me, arrives when the choir enters, singing the “resurrection” theme a cappella followed by the soprano solo in G flat major. The score at this point is marked misterioso and the soprano is indicated to sing along with the choir and to rise very discreetly from it. The very first moment she should be heard slightly, is when she sings a second major against the choral sopranos. After the stepwise ascent to G flat, we have a descent consisting of major and minor seconds arriving again to G flat an octave lower. Unfortunately at this moment the magic was over. Soprano Çiğdem Soyarslan didn’t sing along with the choir; instead she just stepped in very clumsily. Another very important issue was dynamics. Soyarslan was too loud and there was little change in dynamics. For a short while I hesitated if this was Goetzel’s interpretative approach but the choir performed wonderful pianissimos and when it was Zhidkova’s turn she did it exactly as Mahler had described it.

There were also some balance problems between the orchestra and the choir. The choir has a perfect authentic cadence on the word “Auferstehen” where it has to sing a triple forte. Yet the orchestra covered it all the way along until the end, stealing the main role. Even though BIPO ended the symphony with a fantastic grandiosity, the soprano solo left me with rather a bittersweet taste.

Nevertheless, I truly don’t know any other orchestra in Istanbul which would not only dare but also succeed to render an acceptable performance, faithful to the score, including all the off-stage parts perfectly well synchronized.