"For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause"

Just as Hamlet meditates on the prospect of life after death so too does Mahler in his great Resurrection Symphony, though to a far more life-affirming conclusion.  

Alan Buribayev © Simon van Boxtel
Alan Buribayev
© Simon van Boxtel
Last night, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under principal conductor Alan Buribayev brought us from darkness to glorious light in this leviathan work. The NSO caught the mood of foreboding right from the start with muscular cello playing and forbidding brass interjections. As the hero of Mahler’s first symphony is brought to the grave, staring into the abyss, there was a sense of terror evoked by the tremendous crescendos and the fierce attack of the cellos’ col legno. Buribayev whipped the orchestra into a frenzy for the strident discords just before the recap of the opening theme raising the decibel levels to an almost unbearable degree.

After such turmoil, the long pause in between the opening movements  (in the score, Mahler calls for five minutes) was most welcome for the audience as much as for the conductor. Here Buribayev took the Andante at a smart trot. This allowed the music to flow without too much wallowing in its saccharine qualities, while the pianissimo staccato section for the strings was most effectively handled.

The entrance of the soloists in between the second and third movements caused a ripple of applause which instantly broke the musical spell. Given the risk of applause, I couldn’t help wondering if they could not have entered in the five minute pause between the previous movements? Nonetheless, the wallop of the drum that opens the third movement was enough for us to forget this slight interruption and bring us back to the witty scherzo based on St. Anthony’s sermon to the fish. As the music worked its way to the movement’s climax, the sonic boom of the “cry of despair” had us transfixed as if Judgement Day had just been announced.

The soloists, Patricia Bardon (mezzo) and Máire Flavin (soprano) proved to be competent. The former imbued every word of “Ulricht” with a sense of religious awe with fabulously clear enunciation. Her voice, while warm and sensitive, had too wide a vibrato. Flavin sang her part of the “Auferstehung” with great expressiveness and simplicity, though at times (“O glaube: Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!”) she could have projected more.

The explosive opening of the fifth movement visibly shook some of the audience. The danger of this movement is that it sounds merely episodic: a long, slow build-up punctuated by visceral outbursts. Buribayev was not always successful at avoiding such a pitfall. There were many memorable moments though: the oboe’s answering of the off-stage brass was nothing short of magical, as was the horn call of the “Great Summons”.

The hushed choral entry by the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir with the word “Auferstehn” (You shall arise) was finely controlled as was the juxtaposition between the pianissimo of “Hör' auf zu beben!” and forceful following line, a command to be ready to live. For the conclusion of the symphony, conductor, orchestra, choir and soloists poured every ounce of energy and life into the music. The effect was beyond words; sublime, transcendental, awe-inspiring - as if the mind at last had understood the happiness of life after the great chasm of death.

Despite the anticlimactic nature of any other music after such a wondrous spiritual experience, the second half featured the dynamic RTÉ ConTempo Quartet playing Zemlinsky’s String Quartet no. 3. On a numerical level alone, it was questionable to position a string quartet after the vast orchestral forces which the Symphony no. 2 calls for. On a timing level, too, it made little sense; a one and half hour first half followed by 25 minutes of a second half was distinctly unbalanced. Most importantly, on a psychological and emotional level, it was distinctly unsatisfactory to have positioned Zemlinsky’s quartet after the cathartic Mahler. Not unsurprisingly, there were number of empty seats in the second half which was a great pity given how well the RTÉ ConTempo Quartet played. 

What impressed me most here was how well they communicated with one another and how intently they listened out to each other. In the first movement, they rejoiced in the quirky rhythms that propelled the music forward, while they were quick to revel in the sardonic nature that informs the second movement. There was an air of urgency to the opening theme of the finale as the ConTempo Quartet set about an animated contrapuntal dialogue. Having poked fun at a variety of styles, the quartet finished tongue in cheek with unison Cs as if tonal order had been restored.

***11