Last Sunday night I was lucky enough to see Simon Rattle conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker playing Mahler Symphony No 2 'The Resurrection'. The Orchestra came over to the UK to do a London Residency of 6 days dividing their time between the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall where they performed the Sibelius Symphonies and this Mahler Symphony. Tickets were like gold dust so I went with an old colleague and friend of mine from my EMI days who is extremely well connected in the music world and managed to get tickets plus an invitation to Rattle's 60th birthday party hosted by the Royal Festival Hall.
To hear this mammoth work played by the best orchestra in the world was stupendous. Even though Simon Rattle has been conducting this work for 40 years, he still makes it sound fresh, new and exciting. Rattle's wife mezzo soprano Magdalena Kozena, made a magical entry in the fourth movement, her rich voice has a commanding presence which floated beautifully over the top of the orchestra. The soprano Kate Royal was equally admirable in the last movement alongside Kozena. The conclusion of the symphony is really beyond words with the entry of the 200 voice choir singing incredibly quietly and unaccompanied, every word crystal clear. In short it was an evening to be remembered.
In my view this symphony is one of the greatest bits of music ever written. It is full of endless colours and mixtures of emotions. It is melancholy, happy, spiritual and full of such great beauty as well as being incredibly moving. As Simon Rattle says in the interview below, fundamentally it is about life, death and the resurrection. I urge you to give it a go, it would definitely be on my list of pieces of music you should listen to before you depart this mortal coil. I love it all from the beautiful dance like second movement, to the melancholy solo mezzo soprano in the fourth movement and finally that incredible finale which is so beautiful, uplifting and moving.
Watch Simon Rattle talking about Mahler Symphony No 2 YouTube
Symphony No 2 is written for a huge orchestra and includes the organ, off-stage brass, church bells, choir and soloists. Although size can be seen as indulgent in the symphony the effect is spine-tingling and Mahler was a master at writing for such large forces. Rather than being an over-whelming sound, Symphony No 2 conveys many different musical ideas all woven together to create a thrilling and joyous sound. It was written across a six year period and was Mahler's most loved work during his lifetime. The premiere performance was in 1895 with Mahler conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker. It was a complete triumph.
Listen to the entry of the chorus in the 5th movement. Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Orchestra at the 2011 Proms YouTube
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was a late Romantic composer and one of the leading conductors of his generation. "Thin, fidgety, short with a high, steep forehead, long dark hair and deeply penetrating bespectacled eyes" was how the conductor Bruno Walter, Mahler's one time assistant described him. He was also a sadist, a manic depressive, an egomaniac and one of music's great despots. As with his music people loved him or hated him. Over the years the worship of Mahler accounts almost to a religion - his music stirs something in the subconscious. Mahler's parents had a very unhappy marriage and he frequently witnessed the abuse and brutality that was meted upon his long-suffering mother. Mahler was one of 12 children of which 6 died in infancy and 2 others had severe mental health issues. In 1897 Mahler got the job he wanted which was conductor of the Vienna Opera followed by the Vienna Philharmonic. For some ten years he transformed the fortunes of the opera house which has never since been equalled, he moulded the orchestra into one of the finest in the world. But it was at a cost, whilst the players respected him, as a man they hated him. He was a huge perfectionist, totally uncompromising and would frequently reduce players to tears if they failed to match his standard. Furthermore as well as being a genius he was a jew in an anti-semitic society. Following the death of one of his daughters in 1907 he discovered he had a heart defect, exhausted from his time in Vienna he decided to go to the US. He was loathed in the US and died at the age of 50 in 1911.
Simon Rattle is due to leave the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2018 and return to the UK with the London Symphony Orchestra and reside in London although apparently this is all dependent on whether or not the government agree to build him a state of the art concert hall. There has been much in the press about it over the last couple of weeks but my sources think it will happen.
Watch Simon Rattle - The Making of a Maestro on BBCiPlayer