Bachtrack: Andrew Larkin
Thrilling Mahler 2 from Anja Bihlmaier and the NSO in Dublin
There is something quite awe-inspiring at the sight of the 120 musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra and the 150 singers of National Symphony Chorus and Cór Linn packing the stage and choir balcony, while the teeming throngs who filled the rest of the concert hall added greatly to the air of anticipation and wonder. It will come as little surprise that it was Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection”, which demanded such artillery. With the passionate and ever-energetic conductor Anja Bihlmaier and two enchanting soloists, it was a night to cherish.
Unsurprisingly, it was those huge, sonic-booming moments of the symphony that impressed the most, shaking us to the very core with its tsunami of sound. There were so many instances of this, but two in particular that stood out. Towards the end of the first movement, Bihlmaier ratcheted up the tension to an unbearable degree, whipping the forces of the whole orchestra into a frenzy on the repeated highly dissonant chords before somehow resolving them to the tonic. The other example had the complete opposite effect: in the final moments of the fifth movement, as the choir and soloists sang with every fibre of their being of the resurrection of the soul to God, I was reduced to tears, overcome by the sheer intense beauty of this avalanche of sound.
It wasn’t just the sonic-boom that was impressive though. Bihlmaier knew how to shape those quiet phrases exquisitely too. The vernal shyness of the strings in the opening movement was like a gentle breeze after the visceral attack on the cellos at the opening. The second movement Ländler dispelled the frightening quality of the previous movement with its graceful, swaying dance. The oboe and cor anglais solos were done with aplomb too. The third movement Scherzo bobbed along in a lively fashion with its string moto perpetuo amid the sforzando trumpet shrieks and the warning timpani rolls. The furious outbursts of the brass had us pinned back with their force.
Special mention must go to the brass who played with such gusto as if their lives depended upon it. The offstage horns in the fifth music from the John Field Room (which I happened to be beside) were very effectively done, while the brass brought some thoughtful colouring to the Trio section of the second movement.
Both soloists were outstanding. Mezzo-soprano Niamh O’Sullivanopened Ulricht caressing each low note as she sang of humanity’s suffering and pain. There was a noble purity to her upper range as she told of the bliss of eternal life (“Ich bin von Gott”). Ailish Tynan’s luminous soprano soared effortlessly above the notes of the choir, spine-tingling in its effect. The choir too, who waited patiently for over an hour, sang their first pianissimo notes ravishingly, barely breathing their sound. At times, mysterious, at others, declamatory, they were at their most transcendental as they sung of the transformation of the resurrection.
This was an uplifting and spiritual experience of Mahler’s Second Symphony that deservedly brought the house down.