Mahler, Berg – and Salina Fisher, from the NZSO – music of innocence and experience

BERG – Violin Concerto “To the memory of an Angel”
MAHLER – Symphony No.1 in D Major “Titan”

Karen Gomyo (violin)
Edo de Waart (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 11th August, 2017

Spectres, once they’re established, can haunt the world of music for decades, for oceans of time, during which certain attitudes and values can be gradually eroded, or else further entrenched. The fact that each of this concert’s three items might well have reawakened specific “ghosts” lurking among the sensibilities of the NZSO’s many loyal supporters might well have accounted for the relative paucity of attendance (by my reckoning the hall was no more than two-thirds full).

In fact, two of these so-called “spectres” probably contributed far less to the numbers or empty seats than the one which I’ll come to in a moment. Time was when programming a piece of New Zealand music at a concert would ensure that a certain number of music-lovers stayed away. Nowadays, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that home-grown music, partly by dint of sheer persistence (thanks to various staunch advocacy from certain musicians and listeners) and partly due to its intrinsic attractiveness no longer “scares off” people to the extent that it used to do.

As for the music of Gustav Mahler, the composer was famously quoted at some point as saying in response to shafts of critical disapproval “My time will come”, a prediction which appears to have come true wherever Western symphonic music is regularly performed. It did take more than a decade after the then National Orchestra of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service was founded in 1946 for the ensemble to tackle a Mahler Symphony (the Fourth with conductor John Hopkins in 1958), though since then all the others, including the unfinished fragment of the Tenth, have been more-or-less regularly performed.

It’s interesting that Hopkins, according to Joy Tonks’ 1986 history, “The NZSO – the first Forty Years” – Reed Methuen), had to fight the Assistant Director-General of the then NZBC, John Schroder, to programme what the latter called “this long and boring music”…! – an indication of the extent at that time of the composer‘s “spectral” aspect in people’s minds. Now, it seems, concert audiences can’t get enough of Mahler, even though the presence of the First Symphony on the occasion of this concert didn’t help to make up for what appeared to be more potent misgivings on the part of a goodly number of patrons.

So maybe it was the presence of music by Alban Berg which could have been the crucial factor – though Berg was in many ways the least “hard-core-radical” of the famous Schoenberg/Berg/Webern trio whose work popularly defined the “Second Viennese School” of composition, his music is still regarded as “difficult” by association with his two contemporaries, enough, perhaps, to put off people of a less adventurous inclination from attending the concert. One woman sitting just down from me lasted ten minutes into the Berg Violin Concerto before she was gathering her things and was off – but at least she was prepared to give the music a try!

But what riches there were for those of us who stayed, firstly to marvel at the finely-wrought and freshly-contrived super-detailings of instrumental textures, timbres and tones of Salina Fisher’s miraculous new work Rainphase, and then to luxuriate in the miraculous contrivance of acerbic twelve-tone structurings interlaced with russet-coloured afterglowings throughout Alban Berg’s last completed work, his Violin Concerto. Both works required active listening of a kind which occasionally confronted rather than soothed the ear – and perhaps the Concerto might have attracted more people had there been a pre-concert talk of some kind, helping to shed some light in advance on some of the music’s ebb and flow. It was certainly a work which richly illustrated Berg’s teacher, Schoenberg’s dictum about there being “no such things as dissonances – merely more remote consonances!”

Beginning with Salina Fisher’s work, the first sounds were Keatsian in their “Fled is that music? – Do I wake or sleep?” quality, harmonic-like tones so ethereal and other-worldly – in point of fact, not unlike those at the very opening of the Mahler Symphony we were to hear later in the concert. The tones then multiplied and harmonically “clustered”, and seemed to initiate the process of a giant organism gently breathing, with still more textures and timbres joining in with the wonderment, and with percussion gradually becoming more prominent. The lower instruments provided a foundation while the lighter-toned sounds clustered, glowed and scintillated before receding into an almost transcendental world of gestural sonorities, for all the world becoming “naturalistic” in their textural and timbral explorations, sonorities best described by the words “swishing” and “murmuring” and “breathing” and “rippling” – all water-words describing both activity and aftermath.

Gentle string pizzicati turned the processses into a kind of promenade or dance – a “gavotte of the stormwater pipes”, or some such activity – with as much happening on the ground as there was in the air. Winds found their characteristic voices and intoned a kind of nature’s hymn, individual lines finding one another and growing in intensity, reaching what felt like a kind of fruition of a natural process, most satisfying to experience. Fisher’s assured instrumentation throughout these sequences made for breath-catching results in places, no more evocative than during the piece’s long drawn-out diminuendo, flecked with motifs of valediction. As strings and winds found a commonality and the textures dried slowly out, the piece magically returned to its origins, the ending surviving even the oddest irruption of vocalised noise from (one presumed) some audience member somewhere, made for whatever reason, accidental or intentional…….

Last year I had the good fortune to both hear and review a performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto here in Wellington played by Wilma Smith, well-remembered in Wellington as a former leader of the New Zealand String Quartet, as well as an ex-concertmaster of the NZSO, before her relocating to Australia in 2003. On that occasion Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington were the musical collaborators, so this time it was the NZSO’s and Edo de Waart’s turn, with the superb violinist Karen Gomyo, whom I’d previously heard playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the NZSO and Pietari Inkinen in June 2015. On that occasion Gomyo was a substitute for the newly-pregnant Hilary Hahn, and captured my interest with a reading of the great work which provided a distinctive and memorable experience.

Throughout the work’s opening Andante movement one would think that there was little the average concertgoer would find troublesome or unpalatable. It wasn’t music which “played itself”, and did require some concentration – but the rewards for listeners were considerable. Berg began the work with a series of open fifths alternated between the solo violin and various orchestral instruments such as the harp and the clarinet, Gomyo keeping her higher tones exquisitely pure, while squeezing more emotion from on the lower notes. After musing on the opening in exchange with muted brass, the soloist connected with the orchestral winds, taking part in both gentle, bitter-sweet exchanges, and a couple of trenchantly-delivered arched lines, throbbing with feeling.

Out of this the clarinets began the dance that ushered in the second movement. A somewhat angular figuration in places built up to some vigorous to-ings and fro-ings, with the peasant-like dance-steps tossed about, and the violin taking charge of the rhythm for a “this is how it goes” sequence. As if it had been playing quietly for a while and nobody had noticed, the solo horn suddenly introduced an affecting counter-melody which the muted trumpets then picked up – like a memory of long ago suddenly coming into focus! The composer when young had had an affair with a peasant girl, which produced a child and it was believed that this tune was a reference to that particular memory.

As well, Berg had already begun the concerto when he heard of the death from infantile paralysis of Manon Gropius, the daughter from a second marriage of Gustav Mahler’s widow, Alma, a girl he knew as Mutzi. The violin’s quixotic dancings in this movement seemed like the composer’s attempt at capturing for all time a young girl’s vivacity and sweetness, the music lightly evoking fond remembrance and nostalgic sadness, and watched over by guardians such as the stern tuba and a wraith-like pair of Sibelius-like clarinets. As the trumpet hauntingly sounded the folk-tune once again the soloist suddenly danced away, as if wanting to preserve the impulses of memory which brought happiness and escape from what was to follow.

Whereas the music had thus far been vivacious and volatile on the one hand, and thoughtful and nostalgic on the other, the third movement’s opening produced a shock with its harsh ferocity – the stuff of nightmares come into the midst of contentment. Gomyo’s playing bit deeply into the music’s textures like a wounded animal, then withdrew into hiding, accompanied by spectral tones from the oboe and flute, the music feeling “cornered” and subdued, the textures slightly “ghoulish” , the lines from the soloist suspended in space. With another irruption welling up from below, the music appeared in utter turmoil, the solo violin screaming in agony and despair, and the brass in ghoulish-march mode. The soloist’s tones were overwhelmed by the orchestra’s sheer weight and harshness – such horrible, merciless music!

Out of the vistas laid waste by the turmoil Gomyo’s violin sang resolutely to herself a strongly sustaining ascending line, one which the clarinets then took up and played with such beauty and poignancy – this was the chorale used by JS Bach in his Chorale “Es ist genug”, one which soloist and orchestra here made their own, playing it warmly and tenderly, resisting attempts by the individual instruments to drag the melody back to earth. As the strings sang the last vestiges of life, the soloist beautifully ascended the melody, to a point after which the winds and brass broke into radiant support of “the angel” of the music’s title, the silences at the work’s end carrying with them only her memory.

After these somewhat overwrought utterances, the opening of the Mahler Symphony which followed the interval seemed to take us back to the world of childhood, of first impressions of consciousness and the wonderment induced by nature and creation. De Waart and his players gave the music an almost timeless quality, the sounds here seemingly conjured out of the earth’s elements.The work’s many moments of reflective beauty brough out this performance’s most distinctive quality, an incrediby rapt, breath-holding sense of listening to the silences and the soft sounds in between. Writing this now, it all comes back to me so vividly – playing and conducting of the utmost concentration and refinement.

The work’s more bucolic passages were also rendered with an ease of utterance (more elegant than earthy, I felt, probably because the MFC isn’t renowned for its warmth and richness of sound). Apart from a brief (and uncharacteristic) first-movement woodwind slip, the orchestral playing was simply to die for, so much of the detailing heavenly in effect (the off-stage trumpets, for instance)! Had it all taken place in the Town Hall I’m sure this performance would also have heaved, grunted and roared all the more readily. As it was, the exquisite refinement of those soft passages (onstage brass performing miracles of quiet, withdrawn playing) gave the first movement’s peformance a distinctiveness of its own that won’t easily be forgotten.

De Waart’s second-movement country dancers moved briskly and easily, encouraged by the winds lifting the bells of their instruments as directed by the composer, and by the string players bouncing their bows on the instruments’ strings, adding to the rustic effect. A solo horn most elegantly called the dancers indoors for a more genteel waltz, the playing rich and velvety in effect, and the string-wind counterpoints to the dance a delight. The return of the countryfied Landler brought forth, among other things a splendid cymbal crash and, to the heads of all the dancers, a fine rush of blood at the end.

Timpani strokes, both eerie and purposeful, ushered in the third movement, a double-bass solo voicing the instrument’s spectral tones throughout a minor-key version of the folk-song Frere Jacques (apparently always sung that way in rural parts of Austria), counterpointed by a piquant oboe line, before giving way to the strains of a small klezmer band, almost offstage and passing by, in effect. Again, conductor and players achieved wonders with the quieter sections of the score, most notably the rapt, break-of-day beginning of the trio section of the movement with its near-heartbreaking quotation of the song “Die zwei blauen Augen” from the composer’s own Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – here, the play of different emotion, the surge of hope and the minor-key pang of anguish from the original song was as affecting as with the original.

Out of the movement’s deathly hush at the end came a blaze of ferocity from the brass and a crash from the percussion that made everybody jump, launching the finale in no uncertain terms! Though the hall doesn’t give much back, the percussion section did a great job, Lenny Sakofsky punishing the cymbals for all they were worth and both Larry Reese and Thomas Guldborg fetching up great roaring avalanches of tone from each of the two sets of timpani. The movement’s ebb and flow was strongly characterised – the tumultuous flare-ups of excitement and agitation were tellingly counterweighted by the more inward, lyrical sequences, each mood in a sense “overtaken” by another in what seemed like an inevitable and organic progression of things. As for the final all-together, it most spectacularly featured the horn sectio “standing and delivering” as the music roared forth, driven by the timpani and upholstered by every orchestral section singing and playing its heart out.

As I’ve said, in the Town Hall we would have been overwhelmed by these sounds, perhaps even too much so for some people – but not for this writer. Conductor Edo de Waart made an interesting gesture with his actions immediately after taking his bows in front of an enthusiastic audience, by giving his bouquet of flowers to the double-bass player, Joan Perarnau Garriga, in acknowledgement of his restrained but telling contribution to the performance – maybe for de Waart those rapt, inward-looking sounds were the ones that enshrined the true soul of this remarkable music.

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