The Czech Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov celebrated the centenary of the Czech Republic’s independence with a splendid performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Known familiarly as the ‘Resurrection’ Mahler neither created nor approved of this subtitle. Mahler’s Second offers a personal perspective on humankind’s relation to the divinity, music of universal appeal that transcends humanistic and religious principles.
Bychkov stuck closely to the score while bringing out many inner details that are often buried and a feeling of urgency propelled the opening theme forward into strong climaxes. He kept the lid on more powerful sections during the development, avoiding loss of control when the music threatens to run amok. Nevertheless, he elicited much of the music’s dramatic power as well as its romantic yearning for redemption expressed in the beautiful subordinate theme that was played exquisitely by the violins.
Respecting Mahler’s direction to pause for five minutes after the first movement – using the time to tune and bring in the vocal soloists – Bychkov then set a light, airy pace for the next. Generally soft and mild in manner, this charming Ländler was played gracefully with touches of folk-like character, and in the gorgeous final variation, violins sounded like a garden of delicate roses opening up to full bloom. In the Scherzo Bychkov kept the strong dynamic levels at bay while engendering just the right touch of agitation to keep the pace moving forward. After the powerful outburst, Elisabeth Kulman gave an admirable, expressive rendition of ‘Urlicht’, virtually whispering the opening phrase with tender sentiment.
Bychkov handled the huge Finale quite well, tempering what might have become excessively speedy tempos and overbearing fortissimos: his intelligent approach drew enough dramatic intensity from the music without resorting to extremes. A vigorous, agitated treatment of the section that Mahler originally entitled “The March of the Resurrected” pressed forward with deliberate urgency, building to a dynamic rendering of the ‘Dies Irae’ theme which worked itself up to a wild frenzy. The seated chorus entered with “Auferstehen” (Arise) in a celestial hush, sounding like a call from the beyond, the Resurrection Theme that followed in the strings was broadly paced, and “O glaube” (O believe) was sung beautifully by Kulman followed by briefer version imparted delicately by Christiane Karg; their duet “O Schmerz!” (O Pain!) was deeply moving. From the quiet re-entry of the chorus on the Resurrection Theme, Bychkov broadened the pace, culminating in a glorious fff statement of the “Auferstehen” motif. He played up the drama of the final moments to the hilt, drawing out the closing for all that it is worth, played and sung superbly.