Hr?öa’s Mahler: A Resurrection from the Golden Age

There was, it should be said, nothing intimate about Hr?öa’s opening bars;
the abundance of dynamic power here was terrifying and yet it was played
with a gripping conviction and intensity which would be a hallmark of this
performance. There are performances of Mahler’s Resurrection which
lapse – rather quickly, and all too commonly – into fragments. This was not
one of them. Hr?öa does see contrasts in the first movement, but they
aren’t noticeably extreme. We never got a heavy-handed treatment of the
woodwind during their first theme; their rhythms were pointed and
eloquently sketched rather than chiselled into stone. That Hr?öa was able
to take this vast movement in one long sweep never concealed the urgency or
dramatic intensity of the furious and wild ride he and the orchestra took
us on.

It was the second movement’s Andante which demonstrated either
considerable preparation for this performance, or just a symbiosis of
vision between the conductor and orchestra. Whichever it was, it was simply
remarkable. I have rarely encountered this movement performed with such
delicacy or care for its inner details; hanging on each note but with such
fluidity – but then Hr?öa’s Czech background takes us very close to the
Mahlerian roots of Austrian L‰ndler and waltzes where these things matter.
Woodwind solos weren’t just phrased like mini dramas, each individual
instrument was like the dramatis personae in a play; it was crystal clear
what each instrument was doing (the chamber music quality of this
performance) and you never questioned even the smallest details. The
pizzicato section had no unexplained deviations; and you knew exactly
whether the harp was playing an arpeggio or otherwise.

Hr?öa’s Scherzo lacked none of the fear or horror which he had
brought to the first movement. One often wondered from what hell the
resonating and thundering timpani came from; but they were the support or
markers for a tempo which had a swiftness that was electrifying. Hr?öa is
not a conductor to feel the fear of Mahler’s pianissimos – we got it during
the main subject here. The lingering, evocative, bassoon of Emily Hultman
appeared like a spectral presence through the undergrowth of the orchestra,
just as a fluttering trio of flutes wavered and floated above the
Philharmonia’s gutsy strings. Brass were so precise they seemed like
soldiers marching in unison.

really was uncommonly rapt here, perhaps a surprise given how powerful the
first three movements of the symphony had largely been. Hr?öa didn’t so
much take the orchestra into quieter territory but pulled them down like a
force of nature. I think it made Jennifer Johnston all the more sumptuous
because of that, her voice seeming just a little larger than life and we
usually experience in this movement. The darkness of her tone, those plump
lower notes with a beautifully supported upper range which floated
exquisitely mirrored so much of what Hr?öa had been doing with the
orchestra. That depth in Johnston’s bottom register was articulated on the
lower strings; she was always involving, the Philharmonia never elementary.

After such rapture the outburst to the final movement seemed shocking.
Hr?öa held nothing back, unleashing the Philharmonia with such power it
felt like the prelude to an execution. You sometimes sense fatigue in
orchestras during this vast monument – here, if anything, the Philharmonia
were driven by its ferocity, inspired by Hr?öa’s vision of its immensity
and scale but also of its visceral, juggernaut-like drive. The Royal
Festival Hall is often criticized for its acoustic but in such large-scale
works as Mahler’s Resurrection this hall works to its advantage.
This was particularly the case during the off-stage bands, those eccentric,
even malevolent, distractions. Here they felt like rapid, intoxicated and
riotous interludes, although just occasionally one felt that Hr?öa brought
such power to the orchestra they were simply overwhelmed. But off-stage
trumpets were magnificent and as sharp as knives in their accuracy.

The soprano Camilla Tilling did not start her first entry well, sounding
both underpowered and very uncertain as to whether her voice would stretch
to its required range. The first entry of the chorus – on such a diminished pianissimo – was ravishing, audible enough, but one almost had to
strain to hear them. If Johnston had the power to rise above the orchestra,
Tilling still struggled somewhat, not always helped by a variable vibrato
which strained rather than helped her voice. I’m not really sure they gave
the most balanced of duets I have ever heard in this symphony either. It
was only really before the chorus’s forte entry that Tilling
finally assumed some power but it felt too late. And the chorus were
magnificent, even cataclysmic, the clarity of the diction almost irrelevant
given the sheer scale of its climax. Hr?öa brought that final orchestral
peroration to a close with its breadth of emphasis rather than the usual
clipping of the phrase.

This had been a superlative Mahler Resurrection, a gripping
performance in an age where it is rare to experience Mahler of this

Marc Bridle

Camilla Tilling (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Jakub Hr?öa
(conductor), Philharmonia Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra

Royal Festival Hall, London; Thursday 20th February 2020.

product_title=Mahler: Symphony No.2 (Resurrection)
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id=Above: Jennifer Johnston

Photo credit: R.T. Dunphy