The combination of Simon Rattle, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mahler was always going to be a hot ticket at the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival, and so it proved with the opening concert selling out before public booking opened. Refreshingly, the hype proved justified.
The programme opened with Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (or And I await the resurrection of the dead). Certainly, if one were ever looking for a piece with which to wake the dead, this would come high on the shortlist. Rattle has already brought it to the UK this year, during his visit to the LSO, yet one person who had heard both commented that it benefitted from the superior acoustic of the Snape Maltings.
The scoring, for thirty-four winds and percussion is a little unconventional. Yet this leads to some wonderful effects, such as the two tubas and trombone at the opening. Indeed, I can't recall the last time I heard two tubas, but based on this it is something that should be used more often. In other respects, the piece might be described as a concerto for gongs: there is, for example, the stunning crescendo built up during the third movement, the chord built by the repeated striking of three different gongs in the fourth, and the climax at the work's close. Here the Maltings acoustic played its part, the sound resonating, building and layering in the sort of physical way that even the greatest of hi-fi systems could never hope to recreate in your living room. It was all-enveloping and it was quite incredible. But there was nuance to these effects too. It was not simply loud gong clashes: take, for example, the low industrial rumble that figured at one point. As with much Messiaen, the work built to a powerful and intensely spiritual climax. There, as throughout, the playing of the CBSO under Rattle was exemplary.
After the interval it was the turn of Mahler and Das Lied von der Erde. Here was yet more evidence of just what an exception and world class ensemble the CBSO are: from the rich string textures, to quiet playing of the highest calibre, to fabulous solo performances, it was both an orchestral masterclass and an absolute treat to witness. I have been a fan of the orchestra for some while, not least through the many fine recordings they made during Sakari Oramo's tenure, but I haven't heard them live since before the start of this blog and, as a result, I don't think I'd fully appreciated just how fine they are. The Edinburgh festival should invite them up post haste.
This excellence wasn't quite matched vocally. Here excuse must be granted to mezzo soprano Magdalena Kožená. Before the start of the concert Rattle took to the stage to explain that his wife had picked up some bug or other but would try to sing anyway. (Jane Irwin had driven down from Preston and was waiting in the wings to take over.) On stage Kožená clearly didn't look at all well, indeed she looked like she'd much rather have been curled up in bed with a nice hot drink. Her performance was all the more creditable as a result and was more than adequate. True, the voice was unsteady at low volumes, but there was a powerful emotion to her performance and it in no way left you wishing for Irwin to take over. In the end, Irwin remained in the wings, though she will take the stage for tonight's Birmingham performance. Tenor Michael Schade was less convincing, seeming forced and not riding over the orchestra as fully as he should have. His tone was also not the most pleasant.
But it was the CBSO together with Rattle who were the stars. Rattle moved things along nicely, and the performance was free from the fussiness which can sometimes affect his Mahler, as happened with the Berlin third symphony in London in February. Das Lied is probably my least favourite of Mahler's symphonies and I don't always feel it hangs together as a totally convincing whole. Yet here the case was made in as convincing a manner as anywhere.
All in all, it was a very good start to the festival and sets a pretty high standard for the next two weeks to live up to.