Triumphant Mahler Six from Inkinen and NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen

Symphony No 6 in A minor by Gustav Mahler

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 10 June, 6 .30pm

The absence of a notable soloist usually leads to a less well populated auditorium, but clearly the name Mahler works like a famous composer and a star soloist rolled into one. There were a few gaps, to be sure, and I speculate that they would have been filled if the orchestra had not abandoned its ‘senior rush’, discounted late ticket selling policy.

Audience expectations were high, and they were not disappointed.

In brief, this was a magnificent, world-class performance that would have inspired a standing ovation in most of the great musical centres of the world. Wellington audiences are shy: fear of standing up, alone: but here a brave first one would have had the whole house up in a flash.

The orchestra had been augmented by additional players, some, I gathered, from Christchurch. About 116 in all; it is the biggest of all Mahler’s symphonies in terms of instrumental demands, not only in the range of instruments but also in player numbers: nine horns, six various trumpets, five flutes and piccolo, double timpani and harps; and I counted more in some strings sections than were listed in the programme. There were several less familiar items: celeste and tubular bells, a brace of cowbells that were carried through the aisles in stalls and gallery; Mahler’s use of percussion, though impressive in 1906, is hardly radical in comparison with their exploitation in recent times . The pièce de résistance was a specially acquired mighty hammer and solid wood drum that delivered the famous three strokes of fate in the last movement.

Such was the scene that greeted the audience – the entire stage and the raised levels behind the strings packed with players and equipment.

Apart from the scale of the piece, both in numbers of players and duration – almost and hour and a half – there are musicological matters. Mahler’s works were not subject to the numbers of published versions of his symphonies such as occupy the attention of Bruckner scholars studying the various published versions of many of his 11 symphonies, but Mahler’s Sixth had its birth difficulties.

In the course of rehearsals before the premiere at Essen in 1906, Mahler changed the order of the second and third movements, so the Andante came before the Scherzo. According to Wikipedia, he took that change so seriously that he had erratum slips inserted in the existing published score and ordered his Leipzig publisher to produce a revised edition to take account of the changed Andante – Scherzo order.

But the editor of the International Mahler Society’s edition of 1963 claimed that Mahler had again changed his mind, settling for the Scherzo – Andante sequence; and so there are two justifiable versions in use now. Michael Kennedy, in the booklet essay accompanying Simon Rattle’s 1990 account with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, says: “But no evidence to support this assertion has ever been presented”.

And it is interesting that the latest edition of New Grove Dictionary of Music simply states that the Andante was “originally presented as the third movement but subsequently relocated as the second”.

I have that Rattle recording in which the Andante is first, and have to confess that I find it more emotionally and structurally persuasive to hear the Andante straight after the first movement.

Wikipedia lists the performances by leading conductors using each edition. More have used the Scherzo-Andante version but many, including Abbado, Jansons, Ivan Fischer, Barenboim, Gergiev, Maazel and Slatkin have performed the Andante-Scherzo version. Inkinen is listed in the former camp (Wikipedia presumably listed him on the strength of the cancelled performance with the Japan Philharmonic earlier this year; this was Inkinen’s first performance of it). 

Kennedy also records the fact that Mahler had deleted the third of the three hammer-blows, at the end of the Finale: superstition that it might be prophetic – of his own death. But there is no musical reason for conductors to do likewise, and presumably few have.

Reviewers often allege that the Town Hall provides a more balanced and responsive acoustic for music of most kinds, and it’s possible that we might have had a more uniform sound picture there, but the general impact of this performance in the Michael Fowler Centre, no holds barred, left nothing to complain about. I can imagine no more arresting and full-throated opening: a complete vindication of the size and weight of the strings – well over the normal 60 – in which timpani, cellos and basses lent their vital power along with the lower brass and woodwinds. The onset of the throbbing rhythms of the opening march clearly presaged the irresistible energy that characterised the whole performance; nor were the beautiful lyrical passages less characteristic – the gentle portrait of Alma soon follows, after the strange subsidence from the sour brass chords.

There is no great contrast between the unrelenting Allegro energico, the first movement, and the opening of the second movement, Scherzo, which starts with a comparable heavy tread, now in triple time, soon plunges darkly into growling Fafner-like (Siegfried) bass sounds, but later offers brief oboe-led lyrical moments; though even these are punctuated by hard timpani. Here, with clarinets raised to cry to the farthest reaches of the hall, the orchestra caught marvelously the alternating gracefulness and ominous shadows which Alma took to represent the ‘unrhythmic games’ of their two little children (though the second, Anna, was born only in 1904). “Ominously,” she writes, “the childish voices became more and more tragic, and at the end died out in a whimper”.

In many ways, regardless of the underlying autobiographical nature of the narrative, the symphony is one of Mahler’s more formally traditional works, without voices and without an overt programme or philosophical subtext. But it is also a massive concerto for orchestra, and one could easily spend the hour and a half attending to nothing but the memorable and surprising flourishes and fanfares, defiant outbursts and agonized lyrical passages given to innumerable, arresting, individual and groups of instruments. No sooner is there a cry of alarm or some mark of the inevitability of fate than relief arrives from the flutes or celeste, or from an expression of nature in the shape of cowbells.

The scale of the music is so huge that when one first encounters it, and this was my early experience, it is easy to feel it as an incoherent series of motifs that seem to progress without much of a plan other than the composer’s momentary impulse.

Mahler wrote to a friend in 1904, as he was in the midst of composition: “My sixth will present riddles to the solution of which only a generation that has absorbed and digested my first five symphonies will dare apply itself”.

The Andante moderato needs no special insight perhaps, as it is much closer in spirit to the glorious slow movements of the fourth and fifth symphonies. Why, in spite of its pervasive melancholy, it has not been accorded the privileged position of the Adagietto of the Fifth mystifies me. The cowbells return; strings are at their most rich and opulent; Ed Allen plays rapturous horn solos, surrounded by magical flutes and oboes.

The last movement’s enigmatic opening, alternating calm beauty with flourishes by harps and the ominous murmurings by the tuba and low woodwinds set the scene. If I found the argument hard to follow at first hearing when I was young, there is now an inevitability that I find very clear, and the undulating dynamics and tempi of the shimmering orchestral colours as they were so vividly and excitingly laid out on Friday evening, had me spellbound for the full half hour.

Yet the score seems so full of graphic detail (Strauss suggested to Mahler that it might have been ‘over-scored’) that one must be forgiven for seeking the ‘meaning’ of many passages in this movement. The more clarity and energy that a conductor such as Inkinen brings to it, unusual sonorities from single harp strings, screaming trumpets, nasal oboes, the more likely are such questions to arise. This movement’s final peroration seems to start about seven or eight minutes from the actual end: it’s no mean feat for a conductor to convince his audience that every rise and fall in temperature, ever pseudo-climax, from which tactical retreat for regrouping is undertaken, all makes sense.

But it did.

And there was no avoiding the meaning of the three hammer blows, the last surrounded by the most real, despairing, defiant peroration of all.

How lucky we are to have an orchestra, built on over 60 years of commitment and experience, and well-enough endowed to permit the performance of such magnificent works that are so central to the understanding of civilization: not just of the west, but of all mankind.

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