A few potholes in the road, but eventually a thrilling ride at the Royal Festival Hall.
Santtu-Matias Rouvali brought his first season as The Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor to an end with a rousing account of Mahler’s monumental Resurrection Symphony. And while there were a few passing niggles here and there, overall this was a hugely impressive performance that seemed to shake the very foundations of the Royal Festival Hall. Those niggles were few and far between, and to be fair didn’t detract from the emotional pull coming from the vast array of performers on the platform – yet there were times when Rouvali’s interventionist approach threatened to undermine it.
The opening tutti on the cellos and double basses had exactly the right weight, but the accents felt fussy, rather than natural. Rouvali certainly had a sure grasp of the first movement’s architecture, yet occasionally seemed reluctant to let in unfurl organically. And at times he conducted like a man in a hurry – the lilting Ländler that follows at times felt harried, whilst even the most light-footed would have found it difficult to keep up with the waltz which weaves its way through the third movement. There were also some minor hiccups in the ensemble and a couple of wrong entries – but as I said earlier, none of these blemishes distracted from the cumulative power of the performance, and there was much to admire in each movement.
“…this was a hugely impressive performance that seemed to shake the very foundations of the Royal Festival Hall”
The standard of orchestral playing was mostly exemplary up until the end of the third movement, but from the moment mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston began singing ‘Urlicht’ with achingly beautiful tone, and scrupulous attention to the text, vocal colours, and dynamics, the entire performance shifted up a gear, and remained on an exalted level until its shattering close. Too much of a stranger in her own land – scandalously she’s yet to be invited to sing in either of London’s opera houses – this hugely talented mezzo from Liverpool possesses a voice of rare quality – richly bronzed, and even throughout its range. Her finely poised, pitch-perfect interpretation of ‘Urlicht’ held the packed audience in thrall.
Her singing seemed to galvanise Rouvali, as from then on he marshalled his forces impeccably – ear-splitting climaxes giving way to the ethereal offstage brass and percussion, which sent shivers down the spine. Even though the choir didn’t remain seated for its magical, hushed entrance ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du, mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!’ (Rise again, yes, rise again, will you, my dust, after a brief rest!), their impeccable intonation and scrupulous attention to dynamics made it as moving as it should be – it was if time stood still.
With Norwegian soprano Mari Eriksmoen providing the necessary angelic credentials, allied to a crystal clear, bright voice which complemented Johnston’s rich mezzo perfectly, the final pages of the symphony were as an ecstatic evocation of heavenly delights as you’re likely to hear. As suggested, the Philharmonia Chorus’ contribution was outstanding – thanks to chorus master Gavin Carr’s expert tutelage. The combination of Rouvali’s players giving their all, the RFH organ at full throttle, and the chorus and soloists singing their hearts out in the closing bars swept away any earlier misgivings, and brought this performance to a breathtaking climax. To say the last two years have been difficult would be an understatement – perhaps that’s why we were so moved, but if any work has the ability to be life-affirming, this is it.