Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Resurrection’ tops the Mahler memorials

September 18, 2011

The 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death was in May, apparently inspiring local orchestras to play the composer’s Second Symphony as many times as possible to celebrate the Mahler Year. On Saturday night at Strathmore, it was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s turn to play the “Resurrection,” in a performance that was not without its faults but still the best of several heard this year.

Music director Marin Alsop opened her season with an interpretation that bubbled with vivacity and force but, like the previous installments of her ongoing Mahler cycle with the BSO, tended to miss the forest for the trees. Alsop’s tempo choices were often distorted, such as overly slow funeral march sections in the first movement and an overly fast third movement. This mannered approach helped neither ensemble unity nor the sense of overall line through the symphony. Most successful was the delicate second movement, an unruffled, nostalgic Landler that bordered on the shmaltzy in its evocation of a memory of the world left behind.

The orchestra’s playing was generally excellent, some off-color high clarinet and oboe wails aside, with the strings offering both lush vastness and ethereal transparency and the low brass solid as steel. Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts sang with an unpleasant nervous flutter in her voice, and this tremulous quality soured her intonation at times. Alsop bulldozed through her fourth-movement “Urlicht” song, missing most of the potential drama.

By contrast, soprano Layla Claire rose out of the choral texture with a limpid tone. The Baltimore Choral Arts Society provided the necessary show-stopping moments in the final movement, purring in a disembodied murmur at its entrance and filling the hall with an ecstatic howl at the conclusion.

— Charles Downey

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