The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s exploration of the symphonies of Mahler, under the assured direction of Sir Andrew Davis, continued recently with a performance of the seventh symphony filled out with a revision of Paul Stanhope’s work The heavens declare, originally written in 1999.
Stanhope’s is a lavishly scored work, putting Mahler’s uncharacteristically modestly scored seventh symphony to shame in the brilliance of its orchestration. The composer calls The heavens declare a choral symphony but, notwithstanding its orchestration, its length marks it more as choral ode akin to Gustav Holst’s Hymn of Jesus. Indeed, several sections of this work seemed surprisingly close to the Holst work of 1917, particularly in the two psalm-setting portions of the composition, which seemed to draw inspiration from the kind of mood that Holst establishes in the “Divine grace is dancing” section of his Hymn.
Stanhope’s composition lacks something of the tautness and transparency of structure of the Holst work, but he compensates for this with a livelier sense of orchestration than Holst ever really had. He clearly has an exciting imagination when it comes to orchestration, with especially good and atmospheric use of the percussion section, even if there are occasional reminiscences of Orff in his use of it. Stanhope was on weaker ground with the choral parts, sung with admirable diction as they were by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Orchestra and chorus gave a committed performance of the work, but my impression of the work was less one of a narrative whole (a real strength of Holst’s Hymn, which is tightly woven around a series of important musical themes and a unity of textual mood) than of a series of often highly detailed and engaging moments.
The Orchestra seems to show unflagging interest and energy when it comes to the Mahler symphonies, tackling what is, in some ways, a problematic symphony in the seventh. The Fifth and Sixth had been gargantuan works, both with respect to orchestration and scope of vision — the Sixth almost kills itself with those hammer blows. The Seventh reads as a more modest work, composed of short scenes rather than the epic breadth of the previous two symphonies. It was hard to find fault with this performance but, if anything, for me the outer movements (the Allegro risoluto and the Rondo) lacked just a little of the motoric drive they require, given Mahler’s unusually undifferentiated approach to orchestration in them. Nonetheless, the first movement in particular was marked by some pretty heroic brass (especially from the horns) and wind playing, essential given the burden of thematic development they carry. The centre of the symphony is a three-part structure, with two Nachtmusik movements flanking a shorter, diabolic scherzo.
The best of these sections, and to my mind the finest passage in the symphony as a whole, was the second Nachtmusik, so like the third movement of the Sixth Symphony. Mahler’s orchestration finds its fullest flower here, with parts for mandolin and guitar, and the Orchestra’s performance reminded me of the way in which Mahler points so strongly to Webern and the other composers in the Second Viennese School in favouring the light, transitory touches this movement is made from. It is a testament to the Orchestra’s maturity that this kind of movement holds no fear for them. On to the Eighth…?