It doesn't get much better than this: a stunning Mahler Second Symphony
By: Scott Cantrell
Stunning. Electrifying. Lump in the throat. Chills down the back.
How does a mere writer do justice to an experience like Friday night's Dallas Symphony Orchestra performance of Mahler's Second Symphony?
If ever there were a demonstration of Jaap van Zweden's wizardry as the orchestra' music director for the last 10 years, this was it. In an hour-and-a-half work posing formidable challenges in sweep and detail, yes, there was a split brass note here and there. That apart, one could only marvel at the high-performance ensemble van Zweden has built.
Those violins! Those violas and cellos! Even the basses, not one of the orchestra's strongest sections, dispatched very exposed parts with razor-sharp precision. Winds played with finesse and elegance. Brasses entered with charged hushes, elsewhere releasing apocalyptic assaults. A powerhouse horn section was led by former principal David Cooper, back for a break from the Berlin Philharmonic.
The Dallas Symphony Chorus, enlarged on the occasion, has been honed into an ensemble as focused in pianissimo as in fortissimo, thanks to director Joshua Habermann. Dorothea Röschmann wasn't the subtlest soprano soloist I've heard in the piece, but she sang ardently and delivered the decibels. Mezzo Michelle DeYoung had the earth-mother tones, but also the loveliest way of floating those upward intervals. Her "Urlicht" was sheer magic.
Van Zweden isn't one to keep his powder dry, and it wasn't long before it seemed all possible sound had been released. All extremes of dynamics were explored to the max. But balances were fastidiously gauged, inner voices coming through without ever making a fuss.
Early on, van Zweden seemed to underline Wagnerian touches I'd never noticed before. Elsewhere one could only wonder at sometimes garish colors and textures unprecedented, as far as I know, in Western art music. How did Mahler think of them? It's a high compliment when a performance makes us hear a thrice-familiar piece afresh.