This time last year the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was immersed in performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle; this year an augmented MSO has embarked on a cycle of Mahler symphonies under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis. The first two Mahler symphonies were considered to be sufficiently significant to warrant commemorative pins featuring Mahler’s initials being distributed to patrons who had subscribed to both concerts, as a memento of what Sir Andrew described as “the ultimate musical adventure for orchestra”.
The beginning of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, with its urgent violin tremolando, joined by dramatic statements from the cellos and basses is enough to quicken the pulse of any Wagner fan and evoke memories of the beginning of Die Walkure. Mahler’s cycle of symphonies certainly rivals Wagner’s Ring Cycle for monumental force and drama. The opening passages were made even more striking by the absolute precision and authority of the first violins, which was to continue throughout the symphony. Playing as one, they were a major contributor to the shifts in emotional expression, moving from powerful outbursts of anguish that erupt at many points throughout the symphony to a translucent graceful delicacy in the second movement landler and the hushed magic of the final movement.
Concertmaster Dale Barltrop played the violin solos most affectingly, especially in the final movement and the fourth Urlicht movement, when the solo violin and oboe joined the mezzo-soprano for the transcendent “Je lieber mocht’ ich im Himmel sein / If only I could be in heaven”. Catherine Wyn-Rogers used her full, rich mezzo-soprano to unfold the long phrases with warmth and musical sensitivity.
The Resurrection Symphony is an emotional roller coaster, encompassing a multitude of exquisite details and dramatic effects with kaleidoscopic changes in mood and orchestral texture. Excellent solo work was also heard from other wind and brass players, most notably flute, piccolo, cor anglais, clarinet, trumpet and horn. The trumpet and horn sections (Mahler required ten horns for this symphony) were in fine form both on stage and as part of an effective off-stage band.
Although this symphony can be viewed as a quest for the meaning of life, it is far from being a tortured journey of existential angst. Even before consolation is found in the final movement, which does however begin with a shattering outburst of despair, there are extended more joyful moments. Sir Andrew was almost dancing as he conducted the buoyant landler movement, seeming to sculpt the sound with his baton-less hands. Before the third scherzo movement culminates in a climactic cry of despair, a more positive, if rather sardonic, flavor was provided by the swirling, swimming music that Mahler used in Das Knaben Wunderhorn for his setting of “St Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes”. Again, a relaxed clarity in the playing made this movement a less expected pleasure and made a welcome contrast to the more heavily orchestrated sections.
As with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the vocal music transforms the nature of the work. After shifting between cataclysmic outbursts, with percussion crescendos, snatches of the recurring Dies irae and aggressive marches, a timeless calm descended. The MSO chorus, with sopranos and altos in the choir stalls and tenors and basses facing the audience, remained seated as an echo of The Last Trump was played offstage, followed by a beautiful account of the Bird of Death flute solo. This atmospheric moment was further intensified by the wonder of hushed voices in perfectly blended accord singing “Aufersteh’n… / You will rise again”. Erin Wall’s soprano, in turn, rose above the chorus and orchestra in this declaration of hope in the resurrection of the dead. With a voice that carried extremely well, even though the soloists were against the back wall in the middle of the male sections of the chorus, Wyn-Rogers’ plaintive “O glaube, Mein Herz / Believe, my heart” was dramatic and insistent.
Urged on by a sweeping orchestral melody the chorus stood to “Bereite dich zu leben! / Prepare to live!” and the closing passages of the symphony became a glorious outpouring of affirmation. Without scores, soloists and chorus alike appeared to sing directly from the heart. You could feel the audience bursting with an exhilaration that was finally released in cheers, stamping of feet and a standing ovation.
In his pre-concert talk, the MSO librarian and member of the MSO Chorus, Alistair McKean, concluded on an emotional note as he described what it was like to take part in such an inspiring work. By the end of these performances the audience would have agreed this is indeed what the MSO is for: to play monumental masterpieces such as this; no recording can match the experience of a live performance by an excellent orchestra, chorus and line-up of soloists.
Heather Leviston attended performances of the Mahler at Hamer Hall on November 13 and 14.
The picture was taken by Matt Irwin.