Chung vs Pappano
GIUSEPPE PENNISI compares versions
of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony
of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony
Italy took quite some time to appreciate Gustav Mahler as a composer, but now the Bohemian is one of the most often performed authors by large symphony orchestras. In Rome, for the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth (2010) and the centenary of his death (2011), two orchestras competed in performing all his symphonies — a mammoth undertaking [see Mahler versus Mahler, 15 May 2010]. In the older, larger and better endowed complex (the Orchestra Sinfonica dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia), Antonio Pappano started the series, on 10 May 2010, not with the first symphony but with the huge second symphony, composed in memory of Hans von Bulow. In this symphony, for the first time, Mahler introduced the human voice, more specifically, the lied, into the symphonic texture.
This week Myung Whung Chung was back in Rome to conduct Mahler's second symphony with the Orchestra Sinfonica dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia from 2-4 February 2014. It was not an ordinary event. Chung, now musical director of the Orchestre National de Radio France, is a past director of the Santa Cecilia Symphony Orchestra, now headed up by Antonio Pappano. More significantly, during his 1997-2005 tenure in Rome, he conducted all Mahler's symphonies. Thus, although filtered through the memory, it is possible to compare two different styles. As I recalled in 2010, even though it sounds very compact in spite of its ninety minute length, Mahler's second symphony had a long and painful birth. The symphony is also an example of program music. Mahler contended that he did not like to be classified as a program music composer. However, he himself wrote the program of this symphony. Also, his symphonic poems are the best examples of late nineteenth century program music.
In the symphony's first movement, the protagonist is buried after a long struggle with 'life and destiny'. He casts a backward glance at his life, first at a moment of happiness (depicted in the second movement) and then at the cruel hurly-burly of existence, the 'bustle of appearances' and the 'spirit of disbelief and negation' (Scherzo). In Mahler's own words, he despairs of himself and of God. In the fourth movement, 'the stirring words of simple Faith sound' and hold out the promise of light. As for the final movement: 'The horror of the day of days has come upon us. The cry for mercy and forgiveness sounds fearful in our ears. The wailing becomes gradually more terrible. Consciousness dies as the Eternal Judge approaches'. In the eerie silence that follows, we can just barely hear a last tremulous echo of earthly life. The gentle sound of a chorus of saints and heavenly hosts is then heard: 'Rise again, yes, rise again thou wilt!' Then God in all His glory comes into sight. A light strikes us to the heart. All is quiet and blissful. A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with blissful knowledge and illuminates our existence.
In spite of his much advertized conversion to the Roman Catholic Church — a mere tool to become Director of Vienna's main Opera House — Mahler has always been a pantheist (as clearly depicted in the Third Symphony); his upbringing in a Jewish family has no impact on his irreligious tilting to Zen during the last months of his short life.
In 2010 Antonio Pappano read the Symphony as a melodrama. In the first movement, we felt echoes of Beethoven's Eroica and Wagner's Götterdämmerung as well as Verdi, especially in the solemn chorale related to the Dies Irae, introduced by the horns. Pappano made a very sharp contrast with the idyllic second movement. Again, in the third movement, with Pappano's baton, there was almost a balance between the tragic and the grotesque. In the fourth movement, the Symphony became pure opera with the introduction of the alto, Maria Radner, for the Rose Song, which brings the first ray of light and opens the way to the grandiose final movement, where the alto is complemented by a soprano, Nicole Cabell, for a whole series of episodes linked in a way that follows dramatic, rather than musical, rules, and constitutes a vast prelude to the final apotheosis.
In 2014, Myung-Whung Chung, a devout Roman Catholic, gave quite a different reading, a very religious one. In the first movement, the protagonist's death is seen as a passage from human adventure to eternity with the Scherzo seen as a memory of moments of joy in the life he is about to leave forever. Within this overall concept, in the third and the fourth movements, especially the Rose Song O Röschen rot (with mezzo Christianne Stotijn), the approach is very serene, the Peace of afterlife. In the long and exciting fifth and final movement, with the 'Resurrection' anthem sung by the alto, the soprano (Ailish Tynan), and a monumental chorus, Chung gives a strong sense of prayer to the glory of God. Especially, there is no judgment, there are no sinners, just men, nor great and nor small; there is no punishment and no reward. In short, under Chung's baton, we felt more Bruckner than Beethoven or Verdi.
On 1 February 2014, the audience exploded in a fifteen minute standing ovation. The chorus and the orchestra joined the 2,700 spectators in embracing Chung to show how much he is loved in Rome (where he held his last concert in 2009 as a guest conductor).
Copyright © 6 February 2014 Giuseppe Pennisi,