Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Obecní dům
October 19

The Mahler anniversary year has brought many gifts, in particular the symphonies, which don’t get performed nearly often enough, mostly for logistical reasons (length, number of instruments). The Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK) took on No. 2 last night, with an all-star cast that included conductor Tomáš Netopil, singers Simona Houda-Šaturová and Jana Sýkorová and the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno. The result was, like the symphony itself, exhilarating.

Another fine outing for Netopil.
There are several stories describing the reaction of conductor Hans von Bülow upon hearing Mahler play a sketch of the first movement in 1891. The FOK program book has the best: “Bülow is alleged to have covered his ears with his hands and cried out, ʽIf this is still music, then I no longer understand it at all.” Supportive or not, von Bülow inadvertently supplied the inspiration for the fifth and final movement, by dying three years later. At his funeral ceremony in Hamburg, a chorus performed poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection), which Mahler said “struck me like a bolt of lightning.” He added some verses of his own, and turned it into an earth-shaking finale.

The symphony deals with the big issues – life, death, and the afterlife – which it announces with a huge burst of percussion about two minutes in, and never lets up. The first movement is a symphony in itself, a series of raging storms that rise, explode, quell, then roar across the stage again. The hardest thing about this is keeping it all clear and balanced, which is Netopil’s forte. The sound was crisp and transparent from the opening notes, and he took the orchestra from maximum volume to soft whispers with finesse, drawing great sonic booms from the drums and gossamer textures from the strings with equal skill.

The second movement, a much softer and cheerier Ländler, was rendered so sweetly and gracefully that the music had Houda-Šaturová swaying in her seat. The third and fourth movements, spirited and energetic without breaking the tempo, were notable particularly for the sound of the horns: round, burnished and rich in contrasting colors. On a night when many of the instrumentalists sounded particularly good, the horns stood out – even with some of them offstage, a “spatial sound” dimension the composer dictated in the score.

The final movement, a complex work that picks up many of the earlier motifs and themes, was brilliantly layered, especially the quiet introduction of the chorus. As always, the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno brought colors and layers of their own, finding great depth and variety even in the all-male sections. The soloists spend most of the night listening to the music in this symphony, coming in only for brief parts in the fourth and fifth movements. Houda-Šaturová and Sýkorová managed to make themselves heard above the din of the orchestra, and sang with feeling, which is about the best one can ask from these small parts.

In some ways, it’s a disservice to discuss such a monumental work in so few words – much more could be said. It would be better to simply hear this symphony, which the same ensemble will perform again on Thursday night. The conducting was smart and sharp, the sound was wonderfully transparent, and hearing a careful, intelligent interpretation of Mahler’s music in Prague, where it carries special reverence and resonance, was a joy.

And a great warm-up for later this week, when Eliahu Inbal will lead the Czech Philharmonic in Mahler’s groundbreaking Symphony No. 9.

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