Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Czech Philharmonic - Mahler - 10/28/18

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection) 
Conductor: Semyon Bychkov 
Christiane Karg: Soprano 
Elisabeth Kulman: Mezzo-soprano 
Prague Philharmonic Choir 

Mahler’s sprawling Resurrection symphony holds a special place in my heart not only because it is a stunning work, but also because I heard it live for the first time performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in their home, in Amsterdam. As most connoisseurs will tell you, those Dutch know their Mahler, and they certainly proved it that night. Of course, the fact that I was sitting in close proximity of the timpani made the impact of the whole experience even more powerful.
Last Sunday afternoon, I was getting physically and mentally prepared to hear it again, performed this time by the Czech Philharmonic as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Czech independence from the Austrian Empire, in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium. At least this was a more joyful occasion that the other two events it has been noticeably performed at, namely after JFK’s assassination and for the 10th anniversary of September 11.

The program notes gave the duration at approximately 80 minutes, but in the end we did not leave the hall well after the estimated time, feeling predictably shaken and stirred,but also inexplicably hopeful, especially considering the relentlessly turbulent times we live in. The fact that the orchestra’s new music director Semyon Bychkov had observed the original 5-minute pause might have had something to do with it, but on the other hand, who cares? We were just grateful for the opportunity to lose ourselves in Mahler’s magnificent world in such qualified company.
Although they’re more known for the bohemian flair, the Czech Philharmonic’s musicians had apparently decided to show the rest of us what they were made of when it comes to Mahler, and I think it is fair to say that they succeeded beyond our—maybe their—wildest dreams when, somehow, all the stars aligned for a performance that was supremely confident, organically flowing, without any discernable flaws or quirks. They did not achieve this remarkable feat alone though, as they were reliably accompanied by “a distant orchestra” (fernorchester), the Prague Philharmonic Choir, and two soloists. Sometimes more is more.
From the ominous opening funeral march to the blazing choir-driven finale, the big moments resounded without ostentatiousness, and the lighter passages made themselves heard naturally as well, like the beautifully ethereal “Urlicht” (Primal Light) that mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman took to heavenly heights.Not a bad way to spend a gray, cold and generally depressing October afternoon.

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