Having lavished considerable loving care on the music of Berlioz a few days earlier, Sir Andrew Davis turned his attention to Gustav Mahler for performances of the third in his cycle of symphonies. As a Mahler devotee, Sir Andrew has the skills, experience and passion to elicit the best from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and that is just what he did.
With a duration of one hour and forty minutes, Mahler’s Symphony No.3 is the longest of Mahler’s works and uses significant forces to explore the musical terrain. Part I alone lasts for around thirty minutes. But such is the musical interest of this movement, and the work as a whole for that matter, time passed all too swiftly. The excellence of the playing was, of course, a major contributing factor.
Much has been written and spoken about the descriptive program that Mahler initially attached to this work. Whether it can be considered Mahler’s “Rite of Spring” or his “Pastoral Symphony”, there is validity in both views. Allusions to his personal aural experiences, particularly aspects of the natural world, are plain to hear. As we become increasingly familiar with Mahler’s works, connections between elements of musical ideas within and between movements, and between symphonies, become clearer and more arresting.
One of the main threads of several works is Mahler’s use of folksong. The human voice is an integral part of his musical imagination. Material from Des Knaben Wunderhorn finds its way into this symphony in a number of movements, most notably the fifth when the text is used. The National Boys Choir of Australia and the Ladies of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus provided suitably sweet angelic voices for “Es sungen drei Engel”. The lively bell-like beginning with the clear crystalline ping of the boy trebles was a startling contrast to Sasha Cooke’s “O Mensch, gib Acht!” / (O Man, take heed!) of the preceding movement. Placed in the balcony opposite the boys, her rich mezzo-soprano expressed the yearning for eternity of Nietzsche’s text and Mahler’s music in long phrases of sustained warmth. Her singing of the descending phrases, which intersperse the choral verses, also provided moments of great beauty. The appearance of a tissue at a couple of points during the final performance suggested that she may have been suffering from a cold, but that seemed in no way to detract from the quality of her sound.
Although the choir of angels had to wait until the fifth movement to make their contribution (those boys are not just disciplined singers!), there was plenty of orchestral excitement to keep them engaged. Mahler provides one opportunity after another for various principal players and sections of the orchestra to display their virtuosity. Along with the eight horns, who went from strength to strength over the two performances in Hamer Hall, Brett Kelly gave a fine account of the extended solo passages for trombone in the first movement.
Understandably, the attractive second movement was often played by itself in Mahler’s day. In addition to being pleasingly tuneful, it calls upon far fewer of the orchestra’s resources, depending largely on the capacity of the string section to convey the lilting beauties of the meadows. The exquisitely delicate dancing flowers and the building stormy tension were equally well conveyed in this case. As in his various solos throughout the symphony, concertmaster Dale Barltrop’s contribution was graceful and stylish, his silvery tone pure.
The third movement features a lovely solo for posthorn, similar to passages from the “Blumine” movement often attached to Mahler’s first symphony. Playing from the back of the balcony, Shane Hooten’s mellow cornet spun out the repeated haunting phrases between interludes from solo violin, snarling trumpets and a final climactic fanfare of trombones.
As well as some delightful flute and oboe playing from Prue Davis and Jeffrey Crellin, amongst others, the inner strings really excelled in the finale. A strong viola section and second violins keen to make the most of their moment of tension before Love triumphs were outstanding in the power and depth of feeling they conveyed.
Whatever subtext there might be to the music, the monumental nature of the work and sense of spiritual exaltation that it leaves is extraordinary.
It would be difficult to find a more uplifting way to mark the end a forty-two year career with the MSO. For all the applause and cheers that greeted the conclusion of Mahler’s great work, it was Anne Martonyi (pictured) who received the loudest cheers as Maestro Davis acknowledged her important musical contribution to the first violin section. A special edition of the program for the final performance featured a lovely photograph, which did justice to her always elegant presentation and warm personality. It was a perfect tribute to Anne Martonyi and a reflection of the MSO’s positive spirit.
Heather Leviston reviewed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of MAHLER 3 at Hamer Hall on March 28.