The most exciting moment of the TSO’s Mahler Second was actually one of the more quiet and contemplative ones: mezzo Susan Platts’ entrance with the Urlicht, the first vocal solo appearing mid-symphony. After the swirls and the busyness of the preceding music, the low-voice timbre with its discreet accompaniment is a welcome change of mood and even texture. For a time, the solo violin dances a cheerful dance around the vocal line, but blends in with the orchestra as the text becomes more insistent—“Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott”.
Platts’ appealing colour (not to mention potency and a well controlled vibrato) is to return later in the piece, in a duo with the soprano. Said soprano Erin Wall gets material that’s a little less poignant, but she confidently soars above the chorus and orchestra in the tuttis, and very much makes her presence known. In the final stretch everything leads up to the big choral fireworks affirming the belief in the resurrection. What do you do with it if you don’t believe in the resurrection of the flesh and that Jesus was sacrificed to redeem everybody’s sins? Perhaps THE question of this symphony; a secular or a non-Christian listener may find the final chorus manipulative and bombastic, rather than moving. I, for one, do.
But let’s be fair: there is more to the work than the statement of faith of its second half. The first movement is really where it’s at—arguably the darkest and most dramatic, and the TSO under its music director Peter Oundjian did it justice. It’s in the following scherzi and dances that the symphony tends to lose me: they proliferate and the mood changes frequently, so the thoughts may drift. A strong dramatic unity needs to be imposed somehow in this section, and this was only occasionally in evidence on Wednesday night.
The final movement is a busy affair, with multiple percussion stations, a part of brass going off stage (horns for the distant trumpet call effect) and returning for the exuberant finale involving the organ and the bells. For those who like that kind of thing, this is the thing that they will very much like. For the rest of us, this remains a puzzling work, a challenging collage worth the trouble figuring out why and how it should be done today. The TSO gave it a solid read with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in good form and two excellent soloists.
Last performance tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Roy Thomson Hall. Tickets and more information.
Photography by Brendan Zamojc