A view of the world – Edo de Waart and the NZSO

MAHLER – Symphony No.3 in D Minor

Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano)
NZSO Chorale / Wellington Young Voices
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Edo de Waart (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 2nd April 2016

Gustav Mahler’s famous assertion to his fellow-composer Jean Sibelius, that “symphony is like the world – it should contain everything” is nowhere better demonstrated than in the former’s Third Symphony, significantly the longest of the composer’s essays in this form. The music seeks to acknowledge every natural creative force in the universe throughout its six movements – in fact, Mahler originally intended to go further and include a childlike vision of afterlife based on a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn called “Das Himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life), but eventually thought better of the scheme, saving his setting of the poem for the Fourth Symphony instead.

To go with this symphony’s vast duration, the composer called upon a large orchestra, joined by a mezzo-soprano soloist, womens’ voices and a childrens’ choir. With such forces expounding along such lengths, one couldn’t help but feel awed by the range and scope of the experience in listening to the work – and especially when, as with the performance we witnessed on Satruday evening in Wellington, the response from orchestra players, voices and conductor thrillingly matched the composer’s vision in intensity, brilliance and depth of feeling.

I thought the key to this occasion’s success lay with conductor Edo de Waart, who, making his Wellington debut with the orchestra as its Music Director, enabled orchestral playing which brought out the work’s sheer range of expression, from rapt stillnesses and breathtaking beauties to rumbustious energies and, in places, disturbingly raw, almost panic-stricken upheavals – indeed, a performance in which, to quote the composer’s own words once again, “the whole of nature finds a voice”.

Right from the start the playing gave notice that the performance meant business, with horns vigorously awakening at first the percussive instrumental textures, and then the deep, black-browed heavy brass, their grim mutterings punctuated by upward-rushing fissures of agitated string-tone and sombre calls from the watchful trumpets, alert to all dangers. From these seismic upheavals grew the subterranean seeds of a march-rhythm, at first held in check by a superbly-voiced trombone solo (stunningly delivered by David Bremner), but then eventually bursting forth and dominating the whole movement.

My overriding impression of the opening was of elemental forces being unleashed, a process which seemed to gather focus and intensity as the music proceeded – however rapt and hushed the ambience in certain places, the weight and energy of that which had gone before was picked up in a trice, with no signs of exhaustion over an enormous time-span. Though occasionally interrupted by violent outbursts and episodes of brooding calm, the music’s course was not to be denied, with conductor and players bringing things to a kind of fever-pitch of ecstatic joy by the movement’s end.

Then came a complete change of mood for the second movement, originally titled “What the Flowers tell Me” – where there had been granite-like strength and exuberant energy, there was now tenderness and delicacy, the wind-playing properly “pastoral” (NZSO principals Robert Orr, Bridget Douglas and Patrick Barry readily evoking the composer’s beloved meadows and wildflowers), spiced with occasional details from elsewhere suggesting occasional thistles and stinging nettles, with insect life and sudden wind-flurries giving an extra edge to the pleasures in places. After some scherzando-like interactions,  everything was rounded off most romantically by the strings, with Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s violin having the last word.

Over pizzicato strings the winds again dominated the opening measures of the “Forest Creatures” movement, the clarinet perkily sounding the octave-leap call whose resonances came to haunt every far-flung corner of this sound-world. For the moment there were rumbustious triplet-rhythmed sequences jauntily bounced along by the strings and percussion and answered by shouts of glee from the brass. The transition from these good-humoured high-jinks to a state of almost “charged”, breath-held expectancy was beautifully managed by conductor de Waart, the strings beautifully preparing the way for the off-stage flugelhorn, sounded as if from the realms of enchantment by Michael Kirgan with superbly-controlled playing (from where I was sitting I thought the sounds just a tad TOO distant – but better that, I think, than their being too close!). Whatever the case, the playing and the atmosphere created was, purely and simply, to die for.

As happens at the conclusion of the scherzo movement in the composer’s previous  “Resurrection” Symphony, there’s in THIS scherzo a similarly rapid gathering-together of forces resembling an oncoming hurricane or tidal-wave, one which here broke across the orchestral soundscape, scattering all idyllic imageries and feelings, and alerting us to nature’s power and grandeur – as one commentator puts it, the presence of the great god Pan is here made manifest, and so it seemed on this occasion,  though without reaching QUITE the extremes of  elemental force that my mind’s ear could have imagined. No matter, for it was sufficiently forceful and disturbing to banish the day and evoke the deepest and darkest part of the night – the composer’s setting of the “Midnight Song” from Nietzsche’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra”.

This was as great a contrast with what went before as was the second movement of the symphony to the first – we were plunged by the “Midnight Song” into the deepest recesses of our consciousness – and if the depths of those silences carried some resonances from the frenetic pop-music activities taking place adjacent to the concert hall along the waterfront, the wonder of it was (we afterwards marvelled) that  these thudding pulsations had such minimal impact upon our Mahlerian sound-world. I caught myself throwing occasional glances at the percussion to see whether the bass drummer was making a pianissimo roll of which I was unaware – but that was the only distraction, thanks in part to the compelling intensities of what OUR musicians were doing throughout.

Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant, a native of Stockholm, Sweden, brought an appropriate deep-voiced dignity to her tones, ably supported by the NZSO horns, the ambience suitably dark and subterranean, the sounds from the world’s depths – “Die Welt is tief und tiefer, als der Tag gedcht!” (The world is deeper than the day can tell). If some of her softer singing was difficult to “catch”, the sound still conveyed much of her words’ meaning – and she delivered a heartwarming surge of emotion together with the strings at “Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit, will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit” (For Joy wants all Eternity, deep and profound”), which beautifully subsided into the silence as the “Bimm-bamm” of the childrens’ choir began.

The singing from both the NZSO Chorale and the Wellington Young Voices was exemplary – I’ve previously heard no finer performance of this, either live or on record. The timbres of each choir at once blended and contrasted with those of the other so very deliciously, alternating beautifully with the mezzo’s tones; and the brighter flecks of texture and colour provided by winds, brass and percussion, including the orchestral bells, raised high above the orchestra, completed the celestial effect. All credit to the choir trainers, to Mark Dorrell with the NZSO Chorale, and to Christine Argyle and Anya Nazaruk with the Wellington Young Voices, for their performances.

To my initial alarm, Maestro de Waart kept  the choirs standing for the first few minutes of the orchestral finale – but then, having preserved the rapt mood of the whispered strings-only opening to the finale, did what I hoped he would eventually do, which was to motion them to sit at the beginning of a new orchestral “episode”.** Only Mahler could get away with a finale such as this, but the conductor’s ability to sustain the line of the music certainly helped with generating a sense of its unity and eloquence – we were aware of de Waart’s grip of the piece’s architecture throughout, and of how each section grew out of the one before it, so that there was an inevitability about the coda’s arrival which felt like a proper “homecoming”. This having been done most resplendently, the reception accorded the Maestro at the end was heartwarming – flowers, coloured streamers and a general sense of festivity and true significance helped make the occasion a festive and memorable one, and, of course, whetted the appetite most positively for the music-making yet to come.

**I mention this because I’ve never forgotten the first performance of this symphony “live” that I ever heard, given by Franz-Paul Decker with the NZSO, during the course of which he refused to allow his choir to sit down throughout the WHOLE of the finale –  instead, leaving them standing there for we in the audience to sympathize with to the point of distraction regarding the music, and thus completely negating the purpose of the exercise!

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