You’ve loved something for a long time, it’s important and familiar to you, you think you know it inside out, and then it surprises you.
This has happened to me twice in the last month, in very different ways, but both have thrilled and moved me. The more recent was a week ago, when as a wedding anniversary treat to ourselves, we went to see a performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall in London, as part of the annual BBC Proms summer season of concerts.
This is a massive piece. Titled “Resurrection”, it is scored for a huge orchestra including an additional offstage brass section, two solo voices and (only in the final few minutes) a big choir. Performances usually last around 90 minutes, so it can be a feat of concentration and endurance for both players and audience alike. Rachel and I were both lucky enough to play it at university. In my final year, I played 1st horn, and it was probably my finest moment as a horn player. The final chords and audience reaction from that night in March 1992 are and always will be (one of) my ‘happy place’ moments.
Mahler 2 was also one of the first pieces to make it onto my Desert Island Discs list I did a couple of years ago; and while other choices might change with time, I can’t see this being displaced. I saw it performed at the Proms many years ago with the National Youth Orchestra. As is their want, they employed an enormous orchestra and choir, which made a superbly epic sound.
Last week, the surprise for me was not the scale and volume of Mahler 2 was, but its intimacy.
The Royal Albert Hall is a massive space. A huge dome of a hall, it holds almost 6,000 people, and there’s probably nowhere in the audience that gives a ‘perfect’ experience. You can be a long way from the stage, meaning you get nicely balanced sound, but you miss out on the immediacy of the performers and conductor, who seem to be tiny figures in the distance..! Alternatively, we sat in the reasonably high-up Circle, in line with the middle of the orchestra on stage. We were behind the 1st violins, facing the cellos: we could see amazing personal details in the performers’ faces, witness the physical efforts involved, and had a clear eye of Mariss Jansons the conductor. It was wonderfully intimate, but the sound balance was definitely different from what was broadcast on Radio 3.
The offstage brass were clearly playing somewhere quite close to where we were sitting, so instead of a distant presence, they were up close and personal. When the mezzo-soprano soloist makes her limpid, beautiful entry in the 4th movement, we struggled to hear her at first as she was directly below us, facing away. And overall, some of the epic wall of sound that the brass can create felt diminished from our position.
On the other hand, the dramatic strings opening of the symphony was astonishingly intense: we could see clearly the focus, concentration and violence of their bowing. The detail in the woodwind scoring was crystal-clear, and the early choir entries were breathtakingly precise, as we could hear them breathing as one, then barely making a sound. It was a privilege to be able to see the communication between the conductor and the orchestra. And I had a terrific view of the French Horn section.
The performance was outstanding; the final 3 movements (more than 45 minutes of epic music that truly encompassed Mahler’s aspirations to contain the entire world!) were played without a break. For something I have loved for more than 20 years it was breathtaking. It surprised me at moments I didn’t predict, small moments of detail from individual instruments that I’ve not noticed before, or simply a slightly different way of playing the notes that I had thought I knew very well from start to finish.
The final chords didn’t overwhelm me as I had expected, but instead midway through the marathon final movement… The music seems to stop, when the trombones and tuba play a quiet, very low chorale. They’re joined by pizzicato strings and the trumpets, the music builds to a stunning climax with the full orchestra and the French Horns soaring above the sound with a fabulous fanfare, schalltricter auf!
(watch from 7’00″…)
This provoked not just a gentle tear escaping from my eye, but tingling right across my neck, back and arms, and spontaneous sobs that I could barely stifle. It took me a couple of days to fully ‘process’ the experience, but it’s something I won’t forget for a long time.