While historically informed performances appropriately concentrate on finding the best period instruments, re-creating the style of playing at the time and properly interpreting the marks on the page of a score, it seems to me that all too often they overlook another important factor, the character of the hall in which the music was first played, conducted or supervised by the composer.
What a difference it can make to hear great music played in a great hall. A case in point is the Mahler symphonies. Mahler, one of the finest conductors of his time, often conducted his own music in performances given in the best concert halls in Vienna, Berlin, Munich and Amsterdam. What these halls had in common was their modest size — about 2,000 seats — their wood interiors and their resonant acoustics.
Perhaps the best of these halls is the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, which opened in 1888 with seating for 1,974 people. Mahler conducted there on four different occasions between 1903 and 1909. Little has changed since that time. A recent restoration, which included exterior updating and upgrades to interior creature comforts, left the all-important “sound chamber” where the music is played and enjoyed untouched, along with the famous staircase by means of which conductors and soloists make their entrances. Sitting in this hall, listening to music, enveloped by a sound that is immensely rich and reverberant but incredibly detailed at the same time, is still a unique thrill.
The “next best thing” is playing a Blu-ray recording as superbly engineered as this one, recorded in that very hall — the Concertgebouw Amsterdam. This may not be the greatest recording of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony ever made, but it is made to seem so in this production.
Italian-born conductor Daniele Gatti, current music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) has, in one performance after another, shown himself to be a major Mahler conductor. A stickler for detail and precision, he conducts these long pieces with a passion and intensity from beginning to end; under his direction, the orchestra has never sounded better, and he clearly understands the music as well as any Mahler aficionado who has ever stepped on a podium.
As a great fan of video and Blu-ray productions of orchestral concerts, I believe that one can learn so much more about the pieces from this medium than from audio recordings; for example, one can “see” that Gatti has opted for ten double basses instead of the usual seven or eight, that the chorus at about 100 members is surprisingly small and that the soloists are positioned behind the orchestra and in front of the chorus rather than near the conductor at the front of the stage, that the members of the Netherlands Radio Choir perform their parts in the final movement entirely from memory and that perhaps as many as half the players in the first and second violins are women (The Vienna Philharmonic, please take note!). One can also better appreciate Mahler’s frequent use of offstage orchestral effects, as the producer makes sure we see four horns coming from an offstage assignment joining the six onstage for the glorious final pages of the symphony. Finally, while Gatti clearly asserts complete authority over his players, he also has the confidence to completely stop conducting from time to time, especially in quiet, slow-moving passages.
For many listeners, the Resurrection Symphony is an affirmation of the Christian belief in life after death; in fact, Mahler personally expressed no such faith. Rather, throughout his life, he struggled with the meaning of life and the destiny of man, for the most part convinced that life was cruel and senseless and that no religion provided a satisfactory answer. That said, he never stopped asking the fundamental questions, and, at times, strived to accept the answers that would provide comfort. The Resurrection Symphony provides a joyous and inspiring answer only after a life and death struggle. After the last chord fades away, at least in Mahler’s view, the struggle begins anew, suggesting perhaps that the joyous and inspiring answer was only a dream.
While this new RCO recording of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony under Daniele Gatti certainly provides a wonderful experience, there is at least one other DVD version that is just as rewarding — i.e., EuroArts 2053268, in which the late Claudio Abbado conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and the fabulous Orfeón Donastiarra in a 2003 live performance.