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MSO: Mahler 6

by John Weretka

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s 30 June concert was, in one sense at least, a short and sweet affair of just two works — American pianist Jonathan Biss in Mozart’s Piano concerto No 21 and Mahler’s Symphony No 6.

Biss’ recent commitment to recording the sonatas of Beethoven should have provided a rich background for his performance of this most beloved of Mozart piano concertos, but it was a relatively colourless reading. Biss is evidently at his best in the production of a silvery tone, and the middle movement of the concerto in particular drew strength from his tonal gifts. The outer movements were less successful.

Mozart’s later concertos finally see the composer strike an intricate balance between the winds and strings, heavily dependent on close-packed dialogue, while the pianist must switch effortlessly and frequently between director, soloist, interlocutor with and decorator of the orchestral material. The middle movement is much more straightforward in this regard: the pianist is literally playing a solo, to which the orchestra plays what is essentially a chordal accompaniment.

The outer movements present greater challenges and, while the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra revelled in what has become a trademark tautness under Sir Andrew Davis, Biss never quite seemed to work out what his role in the complex was, all too ready to play as a soloist when the magic of the moment was to be gained by stepping into the background. His phrases often rushed without point and he gave the audience too little shaping of finer details. The final movement in particular needed far closer attention to the interaction of soloist and orchestra given its comparatively diffuse shape.

The orchestra’s exploration of Mahler continued with the sixth symphony. Nearly all of Mahler’s symphonies probably deserve to be called titanic, but this one perhaps slightly more than others, notwithstanding the relatively conventional structural nature of each of the movement. The challenge is, as always, to forge coherence out of what seems chaos. The orchestra was on very firm ground in the first three movements, particularly in achieving narrative unity out of the somewhat rambling first movement.

Davis’ tempo for the Andante was slightly too brisk for my liking, running the risk of losing some of the fine details of the orchestration and harmony in the process — this is a movement in which Mahler is careful to create a sense of monumental stasis through long-breathed melodies, and they need the time to play out. The motive energy of the scherzo was compelling. One sensed the orchestra working hard with the final, truly gargantuan movement, but Mahler’s material is difficult to mould into human-sized shape. In a movement in which structural articulation is dependent on the manipulation of instrumental groupings, the orchestra worked earnestly with what often seems intractable material.

The orchestra, in fact, seems to go from strength to strength in its unity of purpose, especially in the forging of a unified string sound and in the brass department, which plays such a critical role in this symphony.

The picture of Sir Andrew Davis conducting the MSO in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was taken by Daniel Aulsebrook.

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