You certainly can’t call Alain Trudel and the Ottawa Symphony unambitious, picking Mahler’s sublime but enormous Symphony No. 2, the ‘Resurrection’, to close their 2016-17 season Monday night. And if they didn’t completely slay this 500-pound heavenly gorilla of a work, they did an impressive job of taming it.
Under Trudel, its new music director, and charismatic new concertmaster Mary-Elizabeth Brown, the OSO has been sounding refreshed and better than ever, even when Trudel isn’t at the podium. I heard a Scheherezade last month under guest conductor Richard Hoenich that was a model of luxuriant, ocean-going Russian Orientalism, buoyed by Brown’s sumptuous violin solos (at this same concert, principal Ben Glossop gave a sympathetic, understated performance of Morawetz’s Bassoon Concerto.)
Before the Mahler, an amuse-bouche: Trudel’s own Birth, co-commissioned with the Toronto Symphony for Canada 150. Coplandesque fanfares for brass and percussion pave the way for transposed fragments of O Canada. Brief, tight, and catchy, it serves its purpose well.
In the Resurrection, Trudel placed the emotional before the cerebral, starting with the opening fire-and-brimstone sermon from the cellos (the section played fantastically all night). This was high-definition Mahler, with dialed-up contrasts between despair and contentment, faith and doubt. The sound was impressively germanic, especially in the lovely second movement, although the brass was at times a little unruly.
Trudel’s conducting was always clear, attentive and tactful — he knows when to just get out of the way. Still, I felt the work’s epic structure was not always well laid-out. The long finale lost its momentum and focus before the galvanizing choral entrance, while elsewhere, hesitant, choppy transitions broke the spell too many times.
Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó has had a marathon week in Ottawa: two NACO performances last week; a Juno Awards classical showcase Saturday afternoon in which she also filled in for an ailing Daniel Taylor; and finally the Mahler. You’d never know it from her voice: I’ve yet to hear her put a foot wrong; she sounds the same whether she’s been singing every night or had a month off.
Szabó is a wonderful Mahler singer. Her voice has a deep but clear amethyst colour that cuts through the thick texture of the orchestra even in its quietest dynamics, without a trace of heaviness or tension. In the Urlicht movement, her expression was by turns grave, afflicted and gently comforting. It was hard to believe this was her first Resurrection.
Soprano Nathalie Paulin has had better innings. She usually produces an absolutely magical, captivating sound, but here the voice sounded strained, easily overpowered by the other forces on stage, with a wide, unattractive vibrato.
The choir — made up of the University of Ottawa’s chamber choir and choral ensemble, as well as singers from eight regional community choirs — was prepared to perfection by Laurence Ewashko.
If parts of the performance fell short of summit, the final, pealing bars fully achieved Mahler’s triumphant vision of redemption and the afterlife. The effect was like dazzling Alpine sunlight.