In a first-rate performance, Mahler's Second Symphony -- that gigantic tapestry for orchestra and voice on no less a subject than the redemption of Mankind -- can be one of the most thrilling experiences in music. It was that kind of playing that the National Symphony gave it last night under Rafael Fru hbeck de Burgos.
More even than most of Mahler's symphonies, the Second (in C minor, "Resurrection") is in effect almost a Wagnerian "music drama," cast in the form of a symphony. It has that kind of emotional scope, that specificity of mood, that kind of relentless dramatic focus as it follows Mahler's five-movement course, spread over an hour and a half. There are few works in any art form that take on the subject of the Resurrection with such assurance and conviction. As with some other works of epic scale (be they paintings or even architecture), Mahler succeeds because he portrays Man in a context mightier than Man. It is superbly sustained from the inexorable tragedy of the first movement (one of Mahler's greatest creations), through the intimate pathos of the alto's little aria ("I come from God, and to God, I will return!") to the awesome heights of the chorale ending ("What you have endured/Will bear you up to God").
Once he got well into the first movement, Fru hbeck's feel for the tortuous course of this drama was most impressive (he used no score, by the way). The huge climaxes were almost all memorably played and executed. A spectacular example: That enormous sequence of triple fortissimo chords with the descending trombones that is the bridge back to the main theme of the first movement was brilliantly handled. It was here that the performance really took fire (until then phrasing and bridge passages were too much of the stop-and-start variety). The descending brass arpeggio at the movement's end, by the way, was particularly fine.
The Second is a tremendous workout for an orchestra, and for the most part the National Symphony was beautifully disciplined. Attacks and dynamics were precise. And the orchestra would unleash huge waves of sonority without losing balance. There were a few spots where inner detail came through from the winds that I cannot even remember hearing in performances by Leonard Bernstein, who specializes in the Second and led a stunning version of it last year at Washington Cathedral.
The National Symphony's massed upper strings started out making rather hard sounds, but by the time they arrived in the warmer climes of the middle movements, the sound was lovely. One marvelous moment: The pizzicato return of the opening theme of the second movement was bewitchingly soft and gentle.
The solo passages that litter the Second are especially wonderful. Concertmaster William Steck's solos were really splendid. So were those of oboist Rudolph Vrbsky, especially that exquisite little passage of his in the middle of the alto's aria.
Marta Senn (who was Fru hbeck's Carmen with the Washington Opera) sang it quietly and plaintively -- nothing dazzling as in Jessye Norman's performance with Bernstein, but quite lovely.
Soprano Elizabeth Knighton (who was Micaela in that "Carmen") sang beautifully in the small amount of music Mahler gave -- and the two were powerful in their duet passages.
Norman Scribner's Choral Arts Society showed its customary excellence.
The Mahler will be repeated tonight and next Tuesday.