Commissioned on behalf of Charles de Gaulle to commemorate the dead of two world wars, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum is as much a celebration of eternal life as Mahler’s Sixth is a rumination on fate. Olivier Messiaen collected and notated birdsong for many years, incorporating what he found into the unique sound world of his works, and the fat chords of the opening bars gave more a sense of natural, unburdened excitability than any kind of reverential restraint. Chailly took lengthy pauses between movements all evening; this judicious use of silence boosted the effect of the clear, spacious openness of the second movement. Intelligent placement of the percussion section was also a factor throughout the concert, giving wide separation to the roars of the six gongs and three tam-tams of resurrection in the fourth movement and distant reminders of nature through tinkling cowbells in both of the evening’s pieces. The woodwinds’ bird-calls and bells were balanced superbly with the broad, slow-shifting chords in the brass, seeming to create a tangible link between life and death. To close, Chailly seemed to hurl silence, almost violently, high into the hall. Perhaps the Messiaen was not the main attraction for most in the audience, but interval reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
Much has been speculated about Mahler’s ‘Tragic’ symphony (he probably rejected the title) and fate. Written well before the death of his eldest daughter, his development of a heart murmur (mitral stenosis of over-estimated severity) and his departure from the Vienna Opera, the work’s bleak outlook and the finale’s ‘three hammer-blows of fate’ can be seen as unfortunate coincidence at most. Though huge in scale, the Sixth is often said to be the most classically shaped of Mahler’s symphonies. This aspect was realised to superb effect by Chailly. His tempi and phrasing were such that this was a magnificently clear, coherent and engaging performance from sweeping, marching beginnings to shattering conclusion. The choice to place the Andante before the Scherzo, contrary to the composer’s final decision, worked well too. The long-arched lines of the Andante were exquisitely carried off to build a graceful wistfulness made all the more poignant by its placement directly following the hubris of the first movement. Another pleasing touch was the installing of the cowbells in the hall’s gallery, far more removed than nature usually finds itself in a Mahler symphony. Visually, though, nothing quite matches the spectacle of a percussionist clambering high above the orchestra and striking a vast wooden box with a colossal hammer.
Individual and sectional playing were largely faultless, though some performances deserve special mention. Principal Trumpet Lukas Beno and horn player Clemens Röger gave marvellous solos, the latter especially sublime in his rising figures in the Andante. The whole horn section were outstanding in the outer movements. Timpanist Tom Greenleaves played with huge authority in powering to the boisterous close of the first movement, and he later sculpted much of the third movement’s architecture single-handedly in attempts to swing the music back from the brink of grotesque.
It was Chailly’s masterly pacing and dramatic control which made the evening, though. He drove the dying passages of the work towards a conclusion of terrible finality, followed by another shocking silence, beyond which the stamping and cheering continued extensively.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP