Sunday 16 December 2012

Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich/Orozco-Estrada - Mahler, 15 December 2012

Goldener Saal, Musikverein, Vienna

Symphony no.2 in C minor

Juliana Banse (soprano)
Janina Baechle (mezzo-soprano)
Wiener Singverein (chorus master: Johannes Prinz)
Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich
Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor)
Andrés Orozco-Estrada opened his music directorship of the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich with a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony: an apt choice for new beginnings. Now Orozco-Estrada and his orchestra have moved on to the Second. With residencies in both Vienna (the Musikverein), and in Lower Austria (the ‘Niederosterreich’ of its present name), namely at the St Pölten Festspielhaus and at the Grafenegg Festival, this orchestra nevertheless retains a connection, at least in name and arguably in spirit, with the Vienna Tonkünstler-Sozietät, founded in 1771, and more strongly with the Verein Weiner Tonkünstler-Orchester, whose name I repeatedly come across in my Schoenberg research; indeed, it gave the premiere under Franz Schreker of Gurrelieder in 1913. There was ample Viennese and Austrian tradition, then, upon which to call, but how would the performance turn out in practice? Very well, indeed, as it turned out. Following a period characterised by a double whammy of massive over-exposure for Mahler’s music and for the most part inferior, pointless performances thereof, this concert, along with Daniele Gatti’s truly outstanding account of the Fifth earlier this year with the Philharmonia, helped restore my faith in contemporary Mahler performance.

It certainly did no harm experiencing a fine Mahler performance in the Musikverein; no London hall could come close to providing the acoustical advantages. The opening of the first movement immediately emphasised both cleanness of attack and roundness of sonority. Yet one would have to experience a performance worthy of the name too – and, whilst not flawless, this most certainly was. A strong sense of rhythm imparted a sense of fate, of pre-ordination. Unisons, even early on, had a Brucknerian power, though Mahler’s score is of course for the most part far more variegated. The Tonkünstler Orchestra’s tone was very different from that of the ORF Symphony Orchestra, whom I had heard in the same hall a week previously: less golden, but with greater edge and more precise, the sloppiness of the latter orchestra’s playing of Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces brought into greater relief by the contrast. Sweeter and edgier sounds both have their advantages; here, consciously or otherwise, bitterness and anger came to the fore. Baleful woodwind, oboes especially sounding very much in the Viennese tradition, heightened the effect, though they could contribute equally well to the almost epiphanic contrast of those magical vistas, physical and metaphysical, Mahler conjures up, looking forward to without prefiguring the final Auferstehung. Orozco-Estrada imparted a highly effective dazed impression to sections of the development, before the ‘hero’ lashed out. Battle royal between the two tendencies characterised the drama played out, the recapitulation emerging all the blacker as a result. Indeed, this must have been one of the most chilling accounts of this movement I have heard, at times close to the Sixth Symphony, even to the Second Viennese School. An unfortunate passage of intonational problems during the recapitulation could readily be overlooked in the greater scheme of things. The chorus entered at the end of the movement: not quite what Mahler had in mind in requesting a period of silence; nor was audience chatter, but anyway... At least the orchestra took the opportunity to re-tune.

The second movement struck a nice balance between post-Romantic Sehnsucht – almost literally seeking to see – and something nastier, more ‘modernistic’, for want of a better word. Interestingly, however, it was the well-nigh Beethovenian rhythmic insistence Orozco-Estrada elicited from his players, strings in particular, on which that darker side of proceedings was founded. (One moment in which the players drifted slightly apart was soon put right.) Pizzicato playing in this context was not so innocent as one might have suspected, yet without inappropriately beckoning the deathly marionettes of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

There was greater malevolence to be heard, of course, in the third movement, though again it was not unduly exaggerated and thereby emerged all the more powerful. Mahler’s rhythms were tight and yet humanly conveyed; they did much of the work. The movement was sardonic, at times shading into nihilistic, yet those characteristics came from within rather than being externally applied – as far too often one hears. The end calls for (relative) exaggeration and received it; whilst remaining skilfully integrated into the movement’s overall form, it also looked forward with rightful uncertainty to what was – might be? – to come.

Though there were a couple of uncertainties of a less propitious kind to the opening of the fourth movement – both from orchestral brass and from a telephone: when shall we be delivered from such selfishness? – and I initially felt that a more hushed quality would have helped, the more forthright quality adopted by Orozco-Estrada and Janina Baechle had its own rewards. One could certainly hear Baechle’s every word – unlike, say, the soloist in a performance a few days earlier of Mahler’s Fourth – and she exuded a maternal consolation that put me a little in mind of Brahms’s German Requiem. The oboe solo proved magically imploring, its phrasing beautifully shaped. Ideally paced and varied by Oroczo-Estrada, this movement also offered orchestral colours and textures that seemed to peer forward to the later world of the Rückert-Lieder. Above all, it was the patent sincerity of the performances, especially that of Baechle, that won me over.

After the relief of ‘O Röschen rot!’ we were immediately plunged back – forward? – into Mahler’s musico-dramatic transformation of the symphony in the finale. (Should that be symphonic transformation of the music-drama? It should probably be both.) There was no doubt that there was a good way to travel yet, reminiscences of material past both tugging back and impelling forward: mid-way, as it were, between Wagner and Beethoven, goal-orientation both immanent and yet questioned. Off-stage brass were excellent, likewise the rest of the orchestra; I especially relished dark-hued bassoons and double basses. A sense of pilgrimage – via Berlioz’s Harold? – was conveyed through steadiness that yet progressed, not least through, or perhaps even despite, the offices of Meistersinger-ish counterpoint. Grave brass evoked Fafner and yet also something more ancient, cutting very much to the core of Mahler’s Dante-like imagination. Shivers were sent down the spine, not out of mere sensuous pleasure, but from the thrill of foreboding, of the apocalypse to come. We talk of Ives, and not unreasonably, as a great pioneer, but much of what the American composer achieved seemed to be present here already: chaotic, yet also far more accomplished, a march of humanity with all its imperfection and yet also its ultimate nobility of spirit. Or so Mahler, the Church to which he would convert, and indeed the Jewish faith in which the composer was raised, would have us believe. (The alternative is simply too dreadful to contemplate, as the twentieth century would discover.) The slick and utterly meaningless manipulations I heard employed by Simon Rattle in a Berlin performance of this symphony had nothing upon this true matter of life and death. Brass from outside the hall again brought Berlioz to mind: this time, the Grande messe des morts. Then an uneasy, yet hopeful, calm descended, needful of somewhere to head, answered by the awe-inspiring grosse Appel and its strange echoes from flute and piccolo. The destination, of course, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – and especially a Wagnerian understanding thereof – was the Word, arguably with a more theological element here too. Impressive unanimity amongst an excellent Wiener Singverein, above which Juliane Banse’s soprano could soar quite magically, prepared the way for redemption of the orchestra. (A Mahlerian answer to Parsifal’s enigma?) Not everything was perfect – should it be in Mahler? Well, only if allied to the musical understanding of a Boulez – for there were occasional imperfections of tone, though nothing remotely serious. Far more important, as authentically Mahlerian a spirit was summoned as I can recall for quite some time, especially in this symphony. (Arguably since I heard it chez Boulez himself.) Baechle’s sincerity – that word again – on ‘O Glaube...’ was deeply moving, the choral response direct and carefully shaded. Orozco-Estrada carefully handled the mounting tension until the release of ‘Sterben werd’ich, um zu leben!’ It was thrilling and consoling, in a performance imbued with the Glauben (faith) of which Klopstock and Mahler spoke. As bells pealed and the organ thundered, my Glauben in Mahler performance was well and truly restored.

What we need are fewer, better Mahler performances: special occasions, mouted only when a conductor actually has something to say, not endless cycles from superannuated ‘maestri’ programmed in order to fill much-needed anniversary gaps. On this showing, moreover, the Colombian Oroczo-Estrada is a true Mahlerian: a far more interesting and thoughtful musician than an endlessly-hyped colleague from across the border. I hope that we shall hear much more of Andrés Oroczo-Estrada, not least in the United Kingdom.