Sir Andrew Davis conducts Mahler

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Published: 21st March, 2016

From Strauss’ epic tone poem Sir Andrew Davis and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra have immediately turned their attention to what conductor Marin Alsop has called “The Everest of Music”, namely, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. After the previous three symphonies with voice, the continuation of this Mahler Cycle reverts to purely orchestral writing enters the more complex territory of his “Middle Period”.

Although the Fifth has no obvious program, Mahler provides an emotional landscape that evokes powerful associations and reactions. The fourth movement Adagietto is probably the single most recognisable piece by Mahler. It is often performed alone (in fact Sir Henry Wood performed it in 1909, thirty-six years before the British premiere of the whole symphony) and for many, it will always be associated with Visconti’s film, Death in Venice. We know that the symphony was composed in 1901-02, around the time of his meeting and marrying Alma Schindler. A brush with death coupled with happiness on a personal and professional level at that time appears to be reflected in music that swings between anguish and ecstasy.

Strauss chose to feature the oboe as a striking solitary voice to convey a sense of awe-struck humanity and Mahler also uses a solo instrument to stand in stark contrast to enormous orchestral might. The opening trumpet fanfare signals another epic journey where monumental forces are unleashed. At the end of the performance it was Geoffrey Payne whom Sir Andrew first acknowledged for his sterling work throughout a symphony that relies heavily on the brass for impact. While the work is purely orchestral there are references to Mahler’s songs; in this case it is Der Tamboursge’sell, about a drummer boy awaiting execution; the funeral march and raging climax were delivered with compelling force. Even the quieter moments maintained intensity with beautifully integrated string tone and unity of purpose.

The final dying strains of the trumpet at the end of Trauermarsch (Funeral march) movement were haunting indeed and increased the shock value of the highly dramatic opening of the second movement, marked “Stormy, with utmost vehemence”. It is a movement that abounds in contrasts and benefitted from the elastic rhythmic pulse and dynamic variations that Maestro Davis drew from the orchestra. The warm, full cello tone, which became most poignant with the quiet rumble of the timpani, was among its many pleasures.

There was some very fine playing from the solo horn in the first movement, but Guest Principal Timothy Jones (courtesy of London Symphony Orchestra) and the horn section in general really came into their own in the Scherzo. The juxtaposition of a rather disquieting rambunctious Ländler and the more refined shadowy waltz made for fascinating contrasts. Preferring, as usual, to conduct without a baton Sir Andrew moulded the orchestral dynamics, balancing the parts and the whole with his hands and sustaining the momentum while almost dancing on the podium.

For strings and harp alone, the Adagietto was marked by translucent tone from the upper strings and gorgeous swelling pulses of powerful solid tone as the players breathed as one. The final Allegro Rondo-Finale was a glorious summary of what had gone before. The concluding brass chorale acted as a celebration of what had been an inspired performance from an orchestra in excellent form.

The curtain raiser to this wondrous Mahler symphony was no less exceptional in its way. Whereas Mahler’s Fifth has been a popular choice of MSO conductors of late – its most recent outing was with Simone Young in 2013, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand has not been performed by the MSO since 1994. Although the well-known young pianist sitting beside me on Thursday night had never previously heard a live performance of this work, he would have been hard pressed to find a better exponent for his initiation than Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

Aimard was last in Australia in 1988 with Ensemble Intercontemporain under the direction of the late Pierre Boulez. Since then he has had an illustrious career, not only as an acclaimed pianist with various awards and residencies to his credit, but has also had works composed for him and is the Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival. It is fitting that somebody interested in piano repertoire from every age and particularly in paths less well trodden should come to Melbourne to play the lesser known of Ravel’s two piano concertos in addition to his Melbourne Recital Centre performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. Anybody hearing the MRC concert would understand why his playing of the concerto would be so astonishingly nuanced. A pupil of Yvonne Loriod, he has honed his mastery of pianistic colour at least partly through detailed attention to Messiaen’s requirements. His performance on Sunday afternoon was accorded a prolonged standing ovation from an amazed audience.

For his concert with the MSO Aimard’s left hand was so perfectly controlled that he seemed to exceed what many could do with two. It has to be said that, despite its title, it is not only the pianist’s left hand that is involved in finessing musical intention; Aimard’s feet also made a major contribution on the pedals. Multiple voices could be heard clearly as he coordinated the varying weight of different fingers to highlight contrasting melodic phrases simultaneously. His playing of the whole concerto was deeply passionate, whether in extended virtuosic cadenzas or as part of an orchestral fabric that was seamlessly woven. Those first unexpectedly glowering notes from the contrabassoon, cellos and double basses suggested that this was a singularly impressive concerto, which would be given a performance to match. And so it proved to be. The rapport between conductor and pianist was a notable feature and it is perhaps indicative of their mutual respect that Sir Andrew was a member of the audience for Aimard’s Messiaen recital.

As an encore, Aimard paid homage to Boulez with three of his Douze Notations pour piano. Hopefully, we will not have to wait so long to hear this revelatory virtuoso pianist in Melbourne again. Meanwhile, we have Mahler’s Sixth Symphony to look forward to in late June.

Heather Leviston reviewed this performance at Robert Blackwood Hall on March 18.

The picture of Sir Andrew Davis conducting Mahler on an earlier occasion was taken by Daniel Aulsebrook.