Masters of whole worlds: Mozart and Mahler with the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
MOZART – Violin Concerto No.4 in D Major K.218
MAHLER – Symphony No.9 in D Major

Simone Lamsma (violin)
Edo de Waart (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday, 8th August, 2014

What to play at a concert along with a Mahler Symphony? It’s a question that has diverted promoters, critics and musicians themselves over the years, and the various possible solutions seem often to complicate further rather than clarify matters.

It isn’t so much the actual music that’s the problem – it’s the awkward length of Mahler’s symphonic conceptions that makes programming with other pieces something of a challenge. At least the composer’s First and Fourth Symphonies aren’t so problematical due to their shorter durations – each can easily accommodate a “normal” first half of, say, an overture followed by a concerto, within a concert.

Not so the other Mahler symphonies, all of which are that bit too lengthy to allow anything pre-interval along the lines of the above, though, apart from the longest of them, the Third Symphony, not quite of the length that normally takes up a whole concert. Having said that, two of the works – the “Resurrection” (No.2) and the “Symphony of a Thousand”(No.8) are such spectacles in themselves that on that count they’re often played “alone” – in each case the sheer “size” of the experience comes from other considerations beside the music’s time-span.

The work featured in tonight’s concert, the Ninth Symphony, though perhaps less viscerally spectacular than either of the above, has the kind of gravitas that can make it a stand-alone piece as well. The conductor of tonight’s performance, Edo de Waart, said in an interview a day or so before the concert that he usually performed the Ninth on its own, as he felt it would overshadow anything else that’s played. If something else was chosen to be performed at the same concert it would have to be “strong”.

Perhaps Mahler himself gave a kind of “guide-line” with a remark he reportedly made to Sibelius when discussing the nature of symphonic form – in response to Sibelius’s professed attraction to the form’s “severity and logic”, Mahler exclaimed that “symphony is like the world – it should embrace everything!”.  I certainly thought that on this occasion the choice of the Mozart Violin Concerto (K.218 in D Major) presented by Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma was appropriate – it seemed to me to fulfill at once that “all-embracing” aspiration valued by the composer, while presenting two uniquely characterful works with their own clearly-defined boundaries.

As it turned out, the Mozart concerto was given a delightful performance by Simone Lamsma, her bright, silvery entry banishing for the remainder of the performance a slightly wiry-sounding beginning to the work from the NZSO strings, and her energy and élan nicely countering an initial impression of petiteness. I thought her passagework most characterful, her accented notes given plenty of emphasis, bringing out a “layered” quality to the music.

The cadenza developed these perspectives further, getting very physical and gutsy playing, the sequence sounding more like Beethoven’s voice in places than Mozart’s! We then got a heavenly “andante cantabile” at the slow movement’s beginning, the soloist’s floated notes exquisite-sounding, her silvery discourse sensitively accompanied by the ensemble, and, in conclusion, capped off by a cadenza for the violin which occasionally broke into what sounded like birdsong.

Not to be outdone in effect, the finale took us through poised, gavotte-like steps by way of introduction, and then whirled us into an allegro, the exchanges between the two sequences continuing throughout the movement. And such an exuberant cadenza! – demonstrating to us the soloist’s brilliant fingerwork, and leavened in places by pure, elevated tones. After this came a lovely, “dying fall” kind of finish to the work of the “that’s all, folks!” variety, not unlike what the composer had also done in his previous violin concerto – all very piquant and charming.

And so to the Mahler – it was true, as Edo de Waart had pointed out, that this work was perfectly capable of standing alone in concert – but having the Mozart concerto first up we felt more “tuned in”, at one by this stage with the ambience of the listening-spaces, and with the throes of our day-to-day existence put well aside, ready to face Mahler’s symphonic retelling of his life’s most profound “dark night of the soul”.

The conductor had said when interviewed that “one needs a top orchestra” for this work, so I think he would have been thrilled with the NZSO’s response to his direction throughout the symphony – certainly his demeanour at the end and his ready acknowledgement of the players indicated his wholehearted appreciation of their efforts. Each of the movements here had a surety of impulse, touch and expression, the structures clearly outlined, the emotions unlocked and ready for we listeners to square up to.

Those enormously cataclysmic first-movement climaxes which characterise the composer’s despair in the face of his all-too-pressing mortal sickness and imminent destruction were here delivered directly and swiftly, growing from the musical textures rather than over-laden, or imposed from outside – obviously the “line”, the shape and coherence of the music was important to de Waart, something not achieved lightly, but integral to the flow. I felt it was more “musical” than “psychological” in the conductor’s hands, concerned less with emotional extremes and more with soundscapes, making the throes of despair more of a human than a personal problem, with its own set of resonances.

In this the conductor was supported by a plethora of superbly-wrought orchestral detail, the occasional brass “blip” like “spots on the sun” (as someone said once about the great pianist Alfred Cortot’s wrong notes!), playing whose richness and variation of colour and texture fully realised Mahler’s love for the world and his agony at the thought of having to relinquish life so peremptorily. The word “leb’wohl” (farewell) readily came to mind in tandem with the two-note theme that dominated the music.

Both middle movements were strong on “attitude”, the Landler/Waltz by turns good-naturedly bucolic and sentimental at the beginning, with the quicker waltz-music taking on an almost manic aspect in places, before everything ground almost to a halt, leaving the rustic tune to run its course, here nicely tossed about the orchestra before cheekily ending with a piccolo phrase.

Set against this drollery was the harsh Rondo-Burleske, here a tightly-coiled set of poses and  rapier-like thrusts, purposeful and almost business-like in its insistence and cruelty. Whatever savage humour could have been lurking around corners and in alcoves, de Waart’s splendidly-maintained focus gave it no chance, though the claustrophobic mood was relieved by a trio-like section featuring a nostalgic, splendidly-played trumpet solo.

The frenetic, abyss-bound final pages of the Rondo, brilliantly delivered, were succeeded by sounds which seemed wrung from tissues of pure emotion by the strings, playing at first in octaves and then generously flooding the textures with warmly-impassioned harmonies – conductor and players here made this moment work as profoundly as I’ve ever heard it presented. But even more impressive were the work’s final few minutes, here played with such rapt beauty and concentration as I’ve rarely experienced anywhere in a concert hall – string phrases and sound-impulses that suggested all too palpably a farewell to life, a leave-taking whose silences continued to sound for what seemed like ages afterwards – for all of us present, very much the stuff of legends.

This performance’s dedication, announced before the concert, to the recently-deceased Franz-Paul Decker, for many years the NZSO’s Music Director, had no more appropriate voice than that final movement of a work that had been one of Decker’s greatest interpretative achievements. The old maestro’s shade would have sighed contentedly in tandem with those beautifully-realised, seemingly-endless silences to which we were all so very privileged to be able to lend our  presence.



















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