The Berlin Philharmonic audience at the first performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 in C minor "Resurrection" in December 1895 must have wondered what they were hearing: eighty minutes of bombastic, often dissonant music in five movements with soloists, chorus, a gargantuan orchestra including organ and an offstage brass band, all of which stretched the definition of symphony to an almost inconceivable limit. Performances are no longer rare, but they are still events for orchestras with the resources to carry them off. It has been eleven years since Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra played Mahler’s Second Symphony at Severance Hall. The rapport between conductor and ensemble has continued to develop over the past decade, so it was illuminating to hear this masterpiece again.

Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst © Michael Pöhn
Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst
© Michael Pöhn

From the opening sharply articulated figures in the cellos and basses below tremolo violins and violas, the emphasis clearly leaned toward the dramatic in this performance. The first movement funeral march was heroic with periodic moments of serenity: English horn and oboe solos were followed by perfectly matched clarinet duets. The themes introduced early in the movement were developed at great length, and musical climaxes were apocalyptic in fierceness and dynamic, yet often followed moments later by passages of unearthly calm. The first movement’s closing figure, a descending scale and three pianissimo short notes in the low strings, was interrupted by a loud cough by an audience member at the front of the hall, prompting an icy glare from Welser-Möst.

The gentle Ländler of the second movement contained the symphony’s most sustained lyrical music, although intermittently interrupted by more threatening passages. Mahler’s own description of the movement was apt: “A memory, a ray of sunlight, pure and cloudless…” The orchestra played with charm, delicacy, and poise.

The third movement Scherzo is a remake of one of Mahler’s songs about St Anthony and the fishes, but with a sarcastic, surrealist aspect. There is a swirling undercurrent, with occasional splashes of orchestral color, including a remarkable passage of quiet trumpets floating above the churning movement below. A monumental climax just as quickly reduces itself to a quiet but inconclusive ending. For its sheer velocity and color, this was a highlight of the concert.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was a brilliant soloist in the fourth movement setting of the poem "Urlicht" (Primal Light) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, texts that often inspired Mahler. The music is still and timeless. Cooke’s sound was full and mellow, but with a “point” to it allowing her to be clearly heard over the orchestra, and managing Mahler’s long, slow phrases with ease. Her German diction was impeccable.

Without pause, the ensemble launched into the long and complex final movement of the symphony. There are pitfalls aplenty (for example, the offstage horns were not always in tune, although later offstage band passages more than compensated.) The development of the material left little room for subtlety: the rise and fall of drama were paramount. Yet the effects were often magical, for instance the flute and piccolo “bird songs” against the offstage trumpets. The entrance of The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, unaccompanied and breathtakingly soft, was likewise astonishing in its sound and clarity of blend. Soprano Joélle Harvey’s voice was pure and ethereal, especially as she entered above the chorus late in the movement. The symphony’s final moments were thrilling.

Overall there was little to complain about in this performance; however, the axiom applies that the more one has, the more one wants. Throughout the symphony, and especially in the long the last movement, I heard a compilation of beautiful details rather than a unified whole that would have lifted it from excellent – even outstanding at times – to the supremely transcendent. I left somehow feeling slightly unfulfilled and wanting even more.

****1