The second season of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal in the new Maison Symphonique was celebrated tonight with the performance of a singularly gargantuan work, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. Orchestras around the world have performed this symphony to mark somber or solemn occasions, but here in Montréal it is offered simply as an olympian display of musicality by virtually every artist on the OSM payroll.

Kent Nagano © Ben Ealovega
Kent Nagano
© Ben Ealovega

The first movement of this titanic work was originally composed as a tone poem which Mahler called Totenfeier (“Funeral Rite”). The genre of tone poem was sadly one that Mahler would never explore officially, but the original form and conception remain quite clear upon hearing this expansive and colorful opening movement. Though still grounded in traditional Classical form, this movement epitomizes the idea of the Romantic wanderer. Mahler guides us, or rather pulls us by the arm, through a savage world of fear and violence, only stopping for brief moments of repose and occasional reflections of beauty. Less theme-oriented than many of his formal designs, this movement relies most on dramatic narrative and sonic illustration. Mahler employs an absolutely elephantine orchestra, replete with a battalion of offstage brass instruments, two harps, organ, two female soloists and a full chorus. As the composer famously said to Sibelius, “The symphony must be like the world, it must contain everything.” For this, Mahler needed a fleet of musicians.

The cellos and basses opened the first movement with savage intensity, though perfectly controlled and articulate. It quickly became clear, however, that the ferocious swells and outbursts in this movement would be restrained by Kent Nagano, who seems to always prefer a more unobtrusive approach to the Mahler symphonies than, say, a conductor like Bernstein, who sought to exaggerate the emotional intensity of Mahler’s works. In fact, Nagano’s performance of the Second lacked emotional depth at all times except for the climaxes.

The difficulty in interpreting Mahler is the absolutely staggering expansiveness of the forms. In order to craft an intelligible narrative from this epic poem, one must have an incredibly clear idea of the role of transitions as well as main themes and developments of themes. After the climaxes in this symphony, which were breathtakingly executed by the OSM (and the brass in particular), the broad plains and plateaux which descend from those massive heights completely lacked energy and conviction, and, by undermining the logical structure of the massive form, this interpretative decision resulted in a sometimes confusing and disjunct performance. There was a constant feeling of a lack of direction during the quiet and intimate moments, when in fact these moments of hushed intensity in Mahler can be as gripping and powerful as the climaxes themselves.

The second movement, a lovely waltz in a much lighter mood than the preceding movement (with occasional exceptions), was very well played by the OSM. It is always a delight to hear the virtuosity of the players, but this movement unfortunately lacked that Viennese lilt—so elusive in North America, but so important in this kind of music. The strings played with wonderful expressiveness, but the tempo was totally stagnant, without any semblance of style.

The playful third movement, sometimes pastoral, other times Mephistophelean in its demonic humor, was performed charmingly by the OSM. The fourth movement, and mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung’s entrance, was angelic, heavenly and otherworldly. Her rich, fluid tone was mesmerizing, and she was able to sing so delicately that the orchestra was forced to play softer, and, in turn, they accompanied her with more nuance.

The final movement is more of a journey than any other movement in the symphony. Mahler creates a dense Germanic jungle—foreboding, hostile, mist-covered—and leads us through a hallucinatory vision of the barren plain on the way to purgatory, the kind of “thorny moor” Benjamin Britten portrayed in his Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. When the choir entered, though not as hushed as I would have liked, it was a moment of complete celestial repose. Equally stunning was soprano Christina Landshamer’s seamless entrance, which simply grew from within the choral sound, blossoming with beautifully expressive vibrato and tone.

As usual, it was a delight to hear the OSM in their full capacity. Mahler’s climaxes were executed with an incredible intensity and focus; notes soaring in the stratosphere were confidently played without fear by all members of the brass, and the percussion savagely punctuated Mahler’s rhythmic drive with complete precision. The downside of this concert was, once again, Nagano’s lack of conviction during those pensive, mysterious or intimate moments—some of Mahler’s best! There was simply a lack of interpretational willpower from the leader. The wild climaxes, especially those of the last movement, are thick and tempestuous enough to be likened to the Notations of Pierre Boulez, and it’s no wonder Nagano did so well in these moments. However, the intensity present at the work’s zeniths was totally absent in the valleys. But overall, the sheer genius of Mahler, the emotional depth of the music and the spectacle that comes with it provided a fantastic evening of music at the Maison Symphonique, and a successful season opener.

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