I don’t want to get into a learned analysis of the symphony – however, there are some things worth noting, and it turns out these are some of the reasons why this is, in my mind, my very favourite Mahler symphony.
The structure of the symphony doesn’t follow the usual 4-movement formula: the addition of the Wunderhorn lied Ulricht as a fourth movement breaks the model. However, Ulricht serves as a fine precursor to the finale (fifth movement), which culminates in a rendition of Klopstock’s Resurrection hymn (thus the nickname of the symphonu), with some verses penned by Mahler added.
A second point of note is the first movement – it was originally written as a stand-alone tone poem, Totenfeier (Funeral Rites). It’s initial chords (in C minor) do seem to suggest an homage to Beethoven’s C-minor symphony, with a fateful figure of its own. As a piece of symphonic music, it stands alone, and it’s themes and structure aren’t at all shared with any of the remaining movements of the symphony. In fact, the middle movements (2, 3 and 4) are very much in the Wunderhorn style, using and abusing the Bavarian folk style that permeate in Mahler’s first five symphonies. The third movement’s tune was later used in the Wunderhorn lieder collection (Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt).
Urlicht (Primeval Light), sung by a darker voice tessiture, serves as an introduction to the Finale in a manner similar to the bass recitative in Beethoven's Ninth. After a lengthy preamble, the hushed tones of a chorus begin Klopstock’s hymn, joined in later by the solo voices and – finally – a triumphant chorus augmented by organ chords Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n (Rise again, yes, rise again)…
As stated before, I own four versions of this symphony – two are part of Mahler cycles, and the remaining two are single purchases. To begin, let’s discuss the two versions part of larger cycles:
Rafael Kubelik/Bavarian RSO
I first purchased this version on vinyl, and this was my “first” resurrection album. I have since acquired the entire cycle - of which I owned a few titles on vinyl). Putting aside my natural bias for this more familiar version, Kubelik is a masterful Mahlerian, and his readings of the first four or five Mahler symphonies are to my taste as authoritative as they come. The soloists are, however, not as strong as some other combinations I own or have heard, but the enthuisiasm Kubelik brings to the mix is contagious!
A few years ago, DECCA issued a “budget priced” Mahler Cycle by Chailly and the Concertgebouw orchestra. Like Kubelik, Chailly is a detail-oriented, passionate and committed Mahlerian, and his cycle is very strong. His Resurrection, if I may say, is approached with slightly less passion than any of the other versions I am discussing today. The Sound is spectacular, the chorus and soloists are fantastic, but I think the work is approached a too, shall we say, aseptic manner. Whereas I love the other versions I own, this one I really like, but that’s as far as it goes. Sorry, maestro!
However, I give you this snippet:
Otto Klemperer, like Mengelberg and Walter, knew Mahler personally, and Klemperer was a conducting assistant under Mahler for an early performance of the Symphony. What this means is that Klemperer is approaching the work the way Mahler did. His attacks are sharp and brisk, and the Hymn is nothing short of divine. For my money, though the Philharmonia/EMI recording was made in state-of-the-art conditions in the late 50’s/early 60’s stereo, his concert performance at the Holland Festival with the Concertgebouw is a much more dynamic, more memorable execution – though acoustically inferior. Here is a link to the performance:
Bernstein recorded two Mahler cycles: one for CBS in the 1960’s and another for DG in the 80’s. There is, however, an odd duck recording of Mahler’s Second – it dates 1973, and was issued by CBS soon before or as part of their Bernstein Century set of re-issues. What stands out for me here is how different this Resurrection symphony is from the other three I have discussed. The first movement is taken much slower, and provides a very different impression. It is hard to say if this is keeping with the composer’s intent, but it is certainly refreshing and interesting.
As an aside, I wanted to showcase my favourite Ulricht, sung by Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester. Ms. Forrester has sung Mahler with all the great conductors of the 50’s, 60’s anf 70’s, including Bruno Walter, and has probably been featured in well-over a dozen recordings of the symophony – here's why (notice who is conducting...):
I will stop short of endorsing a favourite recording among the four I discussed. They all have their merits, and would probably rank 1 a,b, c, d rather than 1-2-3-4…