Järvi, CSO scale the heights with a resounding Mahler “Resurrection” 

Fri May 24, 2024 at 11:24 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Neeme Järvi led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 Thursday night. Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 may not be his greatest achievement in the genre but it is undoubtedly his most theatrical. Of his nine completed symphonies—ten, if one counts Das Lied von der Erde—the “Resurrection” is scored for Brobdingnagian forces, including two soloists, massive chorus and the largest brass section of the composer’s entire oeuvre.

In the Second Symphony the sheer volume and sonic blast can overwhelm the music at times. Yet the work’s varied riches–with contrasting passages of pastoral lyricism–its scoring audacity, and beneficent optimism in a life after death are so irresistible that a good “Resurrection” performance can transcend the score’s fitful excesses and bombast.

Such was the case Thursday night when conductor Neeme Järvi led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a dramatic and aptly spectacular performance of the “Resurrection” symphony, the sole work on this week’s program.

Spanning 1888-94, the composition of the Second was a tortuous one, even by Mahler’s standard. The first movement was originally written as a stand-alone tone poem, Todtenfeier (Funeral Rite). Over seven years, Mahler added two shorter middle movements, a setting of the Klopstock poem “Urlicht” (Primeval Light) and a sprawling finale, as the symphony morphed into an epic journey from death to life. Despite his many comments on the piece, Mahler’s specific meaning remains murky, and the resurrection theme seems as much metaphorical as Christian or religious in nature. As with all great art, individual listeners can find their own personal meaning in the piece.

This week marked the first performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” at a CSO subscription concert in 16 years. (Bernard Haitink led the last outing in 2008, a performance subsequently released on the orchestra’s CSO Resound label.)

Replacing the originally announced Esa-Pekka Salonen—who cancelled this week’s scheduled appearance to pick up a prize in Stockholm—Järvi was making his first CSO stand in seven years. (The concert also marked the second appearance of one of the talented Järvi clan this season, following his eldest son Paavo, who led the CSO in February.)

Järvi senior, 86, was a bit slow-moving in his stage entrance Thursday night. After standing for most of the first movement, the Estonian-American conductor took advantage of the low swivel chair placed on the podium and led much of the performance seated—occasionally rising (“You shall rise again”) for fortissimo chords, dramatic passages, and the climactic final section.

There was noting frail or tentative about the taut and dramatic performance led by the venerable conductor who directed the music vigorously, from the forceful opening violin tremolo and whipcrack statement of the emphatic main theme by cellos and basses. 

Järvi led a characteristically sturdy and reliable performance, firmly projected and full-bodied of tone. His was a middle-of-the-road Mahler interpretively—momentum to the fore and avoiding expressive indulgence; the heart-easing second theme for strings was understated at its first appearance, later blossoming in its reprise. At times, contrapuntal complexities seemed to get tangled at transitions, as if it wasn’t entirely sorted out who had the leading line and when. 

If Järvi’s straighforward rendering of the ensuing Andante was hardly the last word in bucolic charm, his unfussy direction and clear balancing paid dividends with a lovely pizzicato reprise of the lilting main theme. The contrasting episode went with bracing impact and the slow movement was enhanced by Stephen Williamson’s customary personality-plus clarinet playing.

The performance hit its stride in the Scherzo, with playing that was fully in synch with the bumptious expression and galumphing, Ländler-like rhythms, clarinetist John Bruce Yeh lending piquant bursts of quasi-klezmer. 

Soloist Karen Cargill clearly possesses the requisite, deep voice for this assignment. Yet while sensitively sung, the Scottish mezzo-soprano’s rendering of “Urlicht” was rather short-breathed Thursday night, failing to sustaining the long line of Mahler’s setting.

Järvi directed the when-worlds-collide finale with a veteran’s ease, allowing space for the “last trumpet” fanfares and alarums to make atmospheric impact and handling the on- and offstage excursions of the extra brass players with unruffled aplomb. The hushed entrance of the chorus at “Auferstehen” was duly magical, glowing and textured, with soloist Mari Eriksmoen’s rich soprano soaring over the chorus. Cargill seemed more comfortable in the finale’s demands and sang with impressive dedication here as well. 

It is the epic finale that gives the “Resurrection” its name, and Järvi handle the contrasting elements fluently, inexorably building the movement to an imposing and majestic coda. The chorus, soloists, chiming bells, and eleven horns with bells up—a striking visual—made for a triumphant and uplifting coda, one that would have even the greatest skeptic looking for the nearest grave to leap into. 

The CSO musicians were at their finest across all sections, with the percussion and brass, in particular, delivering the requisite brilliance and sonic spectacle.

Kudos as well to guest chorus director James K. Bass. Apart from a couple isolated early entrances by individuals, the Chicago Symphony Chorus under Bass handled their role with rich and lustrous vocalism, clearly delineated sections, and impressively clear articulation of the German text, even with 119 singers. 

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. cso.org

Posted in Performances

17 Responses to “Järvi, CSO scale the heights with a resounding Mahler “Resurrection” ”

  1. Posted May 24, 2024 at 2:33 pm by Saurab

    Thank you for the great writeup, and I largely agree with your perspective. I believe your choice of words, “characteristically sturdy and reliable performance” were spot on, even as he did present some interesting choices throughout, such as delaying the celli in the opening bars while sustaining the tremolos in the other strings. It didn’t feel like it rose to the level of Solti’s recording or Tennstedt’s, as I felt it was a more “conservative” take on the piece, but it was still quite effective – can that symphony ever NOT be effective???

    There was definitely a buzz amongst the performers and the audience before, during, and after–nice to see a nearly full house and 3+ curtain calls with the orchestra members in full applause felt like the right release of joy in celebration of the performance, performers, and this gift of an orchestra that we have. I know (and saw) many people who flew in from out of town just for this, and that type of enthusiasm feels good to have again.

    I’m personally going again on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see how it compares!

  2. Posted May 24, 2024 at 4:37 pm by Freddy Hovey

    Great review, only missing one critical element––the ovation was something in my decades attending the symphonies in NY, SF, and now 9 years in Chicago, I have never witnessed a more ecstatic cacophony of an adoring, over-stimulated audience standing and screaming their adulation! And when Järvi egged us on while we were already at din level, cupping his ears, joking with us that we weren’t loud enough, we delivered a massive roar that astonished every person in the hall, including the players! And it was repeated several times!

  3. Posted May 24, 2024 at 9:23 pm by Roger

    Maestro Muti’s tenure as CSO Music Director presented us many memorable performances, particularly opera evenings. However, one criticism, a major one for this subscriber, was neglecting to regularly program the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. They were sorely missed.

    In recent years, several guest conductors presented us with excellent performances of them: the 6th with van Zweden and Rattle and the Munchingers, the 9th with Hrusa and most recently Makela and the 5th. And Thursday night, Jarvi and “The Resurrection.” Outstanding!

    These concerts recalled memorable evenings when Solti, Guilini, Abbado and Tennstedt were on the podium conducting these masterworks.

    And BRAVO Maestro Neeme!!! Salonen WHO?

  4. Posted May 24, 2024 at 10:32 pm by Mark

    Probably the most technically precise I’ve heard the CSO play in a long, long time. They sounded absolutely terrific on Friday night. Kudos to Mr. Jarvi at nearly 87 years young for stepping in for Esa-Pekka Salonen and executing admirably.

    Not my favorite performance musically speaking as the energy felt flat, and at times, no sense of musical line. They clearly dedicated rehearsal time to the ending with all of the pieces coming together.

    Final notes – it was great to see David Bilger sub in at fifth trumpet and shine on the offstage trumpet parts. I’m curious who played principal trombone, in place of Jay Friedman, and also a guest on second trombone to round out the section. The low brass worked well.


  5. Posted May 24, 2024 at 11:09 pm by Andrew Dogan

    I attended Friday night. I thought the playing was of the highest caliber–Batallan absolutely nailed “the” note in the last movement in particular. It seemed to me that Jarvi was all over the place with tempo throughout and that some of the orchestra and singers were having trouble placing his downbeats. Still a great performance.

  6. Posted May 25, 2024 at 6:05 am by Charles Amenta

    A sonic spectacular. I can see why Bradley Cooper concocted a movie so he could conduct the final minutes. Järvi’s conducting was sturdy if he wasn’t. I have no idea how the CSO followed him, but follow him they did. (If Reiner had a breast-pocket beat, Järvi had an in-the-pocket beat.) On Friday, the CSO had a squeaky, guest principal clarinet, I believe.

    The audience went into raptures after the performance, but Järvi enhanced its response by cupping his ears as if he couldn’t hear us when he had the orchestra rise. That promoted an even more voluminous outpouring of cheers.

  7. Posted May 25, 2024 at 9:22 am by Stanley H Fox

    As a sonic event this was a Mahler Second for the ages. I miss hearing this symphony without a true contralto. Find Kathleen Ferrier or Maureen Forrester on YouTube. I would also suggest fanfares and alarms in the last movement should build instead of each being full out. Seek out a Bruno Walter Mahler Second for less excess and just as much if not more emotional impact.

    All this said, much of this performance was unforgettable and the ending just amazing.

  8. Posted May 25, 2024 at 9:23 am by Hugh Spencer

    It was a wonderful performance, far from the boring one I heard in London by Marin Alsop. (Thank goodness she is tied down at the Met Opera and could not sub here!).

    What surprised me was that of all the many composers Jarvi has championed, I don’t think Mahler has been in his repertory.

  9. Posted May 25, 2024 at 12:15 pm by Paul Josephson

    I was not at the concert, but in response to a previous message, Jarvi made several fine Mahler recordings with Royal Scottish National Orchestra including 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

  10. Posted May 25, 2024 at 1:31 pm by Chef

    Tim Higgins, Principal bone w SF subbed on lead trombone.

  11. Posted May 25, 2024 at 3:32 pm by Andrew Cityof

    The performance was tremendously moving. I’ve never had a concert-experience paradox like I did last night (Friday). On the one hand, it felt like it was over too quickly. On the other hand, when it ended, I was surprised to look at the clock and see that only 90 minutes had passed! I could have sworn that I had been lost in the music for 3-4 hours!

    Did I hear correctly by a commenter that that was David Bilger sitting 5th chair/offstage in the trumpet section?!?! Can anyone verify that?! #epic

    As for the performance … mercy me we have a wonderful group of musicians. If I could have stayed longer, I would have cheered myself hoarse for our wonderful orchestra. So many exquisite solos (especially flute, English horn, trumpet). So much wonderful ensemble playing as well. Those soft trumpet triads played by Esteban, John, and Mark were super human–as well as so many other great trumpet moments. The chorus entrance ….

    I wish I could go again tonight. Bravo Maestro Jarvi and our beloved CSO!

  12. Posted May 25, 2024 at 11:42 pm by greg

    As a longtime admirer, two-year subscriber I’m still in my deep-crush stage with this orchestra. With poor eyesight I choose to sit rather close, J in middle is my subscriber row. This may not be ideal for some, but I enjoy watching the personality of performers, particularly strings and soloists. Every musician seemed to thoroughly enjoy this performance, even more than usual. I know I did.

  13. Posted May 26, 2024 at 8:45 am by Richard T

    It’s hard to imagine that it’s been 16 years since this was last played at Orchestra Hall. That last time (‘08) was by Haitink, which was a completely different era. It used to be played far more frequently. This is specially perplexing because management knows that CSO Mahler sells seats. There were certainly no casual tourists on Friday night; everyone came for a special occasion. Mahler always brings out the specialist audience and everyone sat deeply engrossed.

    As noted by other commentators above, there were several personnel changes (on Fri: clarinet, trombone, neither cello principal was in house) but every orchestra section played gloriously. I agree on the superb preparation of the chorus. It is such a pleasure to be able to hear not just the opening pianissimo but perfect clarity way into the text in places like “bereite dich zu leben”. (Both soloists were also perfectly clear, in contrast to Ying Fang’s mumbo jumbo for Mälkki Mahler 4 a couple of months ago.)

    In the old days, and this could well be a Hillis tradition, the chorus would stand in perfect unison at the trumpets of the apocalypse and this always produced a harrowing, very physical effect. This time, they chose to stand at a quiet moment, with scores opened quietly even earlier (with Haitink, the score is opened with a big dramatic, exciting gesture). I imagine this is even harder to pull off, but it was perfectly executed with not one single person lagging behind by one microsecond.

  14. Posted May 26, 2024 at 1:52 pm by niloiv

    I have to disagree with ‘Mahler always brings out the specialist audience and everyone sat deeply engrossed.’ It was a full house Friday night (not too often for a subscription concert in recent years), but the audience was horrible. Everyone attending the Friday concert was being too nice to not call out the idiot who screamed during first movement development, between the huge climax and reentry of the opening bass scales. Then nearly every quiet melody would end up with orchestra playing to someone coughing. Not to even mention the sporicidal murmuring, phone ring, key chain shuffling and watch beeping on hour (what the hell?).

    The concert was well played, but for such a unique sonic/spiritual experience as Mahler 2, it’s a combined effort of musicians and audience to put everything together, and it was a total failure on the audience side on Friday evening

  15. Posted May 27, 2024 at 7:57 am by nancy berman

    Without doubt the concert of the season – only sorry I did not go a 2nd time -Perfection.

  16. Posted May 27, 2024 at 12:52 pm by George Young

    This was the most impactful Mahler 2nd performance by the CSO that I’ve heard since Georg Solti’s of April 1969, right after he was named new Music Director.

    Thanks to you at CCR for the insightful review of one of the more prominent concert weeks of the current season. One that neither of the so-called dying legacy newspaper outlets could be bothered to cover.

  17. Posted May 28, 2024 at 9:03 am by John Humanski

    I was also at the Friday concert and will confirm niloiv’s assessment of the audience. One of the more restless and noisy audiences in recent memory.

    However, I will state that the “idiot” who “woohoo’ed” during the first movement expressed my feelings at the time as I found that moment to be quite exhilarating. Frankly, I found the coughing and fidgeting to be much more of a distraction.

    As to the performance, I agree with the reviewer that Jarvi took a middle-of-the-road approach and was successful overall. The playing was exceptional, especially the brass and the wind principals.

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