It’s always a pleasure to see an opera house orchestra released, like the prisoners of Fidelio, from their subterranean habitat into the limelight. And the players of the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin – surely Berlin’s hardest-working band – certainly seemed to enjoy being on the stage for this performance of Mahler’s mighty ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, visibly appreciating each other’s work, relishing the orchestral workout offered by the kaleidoscope of moods and emotions of Mahler’s score.

Donald Runnicles © Simon Pauly
Donald Runnicles
© Simon Pauly

Under Donald Runnicles, though, this was a performance notable for its sense of intimacy and cohesiveness. This was in part due, it seemed to me, to the acoustic of the Deutsche Oper itself. With the pit covered over and its stage contained within large wooden panels, the sound was smooth and rich rather than bright and analytical; I wondered how the concert might have sounded in the Philharmonie down the road.

The orchestra’s own sound is also one less about incisive attack than mellifluous blend, and Runnicles seemed reluctant to bring out all the score’s bite. The winds could have been more acerbic in Scherzo, for example, while brass chords tended to be bottom heavy, with the trombone and, when there to strengthen the foundations, an especially fruity contrabassoon tending to dominate. The strings, and especially the first violins as led by concertmaster Juraj Cizmarovic, were at their considerable best in the more lyrical episodes, that in the first movement sung out with a moving yearning delicacy.

Runnicles saved the full force of his band for certain key moments. The scrunchingly dissonant chords that herald the first movement’s recapitulation were squeezed for all their worth; later on, the force of another grand climax dislodged a few pieces of gold confetti from the flies, which fluttered down gently as we recovered.

Whether the performance’s occasional lack of bite was also down to a shortage of preparation time, however, was difficult to tell. There were nonetheless moments where one sensed a lack of security, a not entirely beneficial edge-of-the-seat excitement, a blurring of detail. Otherwise the first movement was defined by an impressive sense of the grander structure, as one would expect from so experienced a Wagnerian as Runnicles. He brought a lovely lilt, matched by witty playing from the orchestra, to the Andante moderato second movement, taken at an unsentimentally swift pace, and kept the Scherzo flowing as it wound and wove around itself.

Ronnita Miller © Simon Pauly
Ronnita Miller
© Simon Pauly

Perhaps appropriately, however, given the forces involved, this was a performance that was at its best once voices were added into the mix. And what a voice it was in Urlicht: Ronnita Miller’s wonderfully soulful contralto – rich, with a velvety legato, conjuring up an almost unbearably moving sense of lamentation and, as she soared delicately to the tops of phrases, hope. This singer, a true contralto, is kept pretty busy as a member of the Deutsche Oper ensemble, but I’d certainly rush to hear her again in this repertoire.

Runnicles led us through the finale’s various episodes with a predictably sure hand, an ever increasing sense of grandeur leading up to the chorus’s hushed first entry, topped by Elena Tsallagova’s soprano – not quite as soaringly angelic as some, but clean and secure. The Deutsche Oper Berlin Chorus, as trained for the occasion by Jeremy Bines, were a little underpowered and insecure in some of their early exposed passages, but rose, with Tsallagova and Miller, to full-throated splendour in a magnificent account of the final minutes.

If I'd had some doubts in the earlier parts of the concert, these were banished as Runnicles, as so often is the case, showed himself a master of delivering in the moments that count. 

****1