Gustav Mahler’s heartfelt expression of existentialist optimism given resplendent treatment by the NZSO and departing Music Director Edo de Waart

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

GUSTAV MAHLER – Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”)

Lauren Snouffer (soprano)
Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano)
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir (Music Director, Karen Grylls)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington (Music Director, Brent Stewart)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Edo de Waart (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday, 22nd November 2019

“It opens as if on the brink of an abyss, and ends with an exhilarating rebirth”. With these words Edo de Waart, the conductor of this performance of Gustav Mahler’s monumental “Resurrection” Symphony, summed up in a programme foreword his reasoning for making the work his final assignment as the NZSO’s Music Director. According to the archive of that redoubtable critical periodical, “Middle C”, this was his seventh separate Mahler Symphony performance undertaken with the orchestra, the only ones missing from the canon being the Sixth and the Eighth – and with de Waart promising to return as “Conductor Laureate” in years to come, who can say whether or no he has either or both of those works in his sights as a “completion” of sorts?

It sometimes seems that the classical music world has become “cycle-mad” (an attitude in marked contrast to that of a number of great musicians of the past who expressly refused to perform (and record) certain works (even what many would regard as “great” ones) that they felt little affinity with). However, with all of the Mahler performances I’ve heard de Waart conduct over the years I’ve enjoyed his particular insights into and affinity with the Mahlerian ethos, albeit via a tightly-disciplined, straightforward and direct way with the music. I for one would be most interested in the idea of him completing his Mahler symphonic survey with the orchestra – something to consider, perhaps?

Over the period I’ve been attending NZSO concerts (since the late 1960s), the orchestra has been fortunate in having a number of music-directors seemingly well-versed in this composer’s once warily-regarded oeuvre – performances of the symphonies that stood out for me over the pre-de Waart years were those by Michi Inoue, Uri Segal, Victor Yampolsky, Franz-Paul Decker, James Judd and Pietari Inkinen, not to mention Vladimir Ashkenazy’s sensational presentation of the rarely-heard “Symphony of a Thousand” the massive Eighth, at an Arts Festival concert in Wellington in 2010  (regarding recent Festivals by comparison, those, unfortunately, were the days!)…..

All of those occasions referred to above have contributed to the orchestra’s building up a well-versed Mahler style, one shaped according to each maestro’s wishes, and evolving as a living, breathing and above all, flexible attitude, one able to readily encompass the demands of each of the composer’s symphonies along the interpretative lines of whomever is on the podium. This state of things was expressed in no uncertain terms this time round by the orchestra’s delivery of the Symphony’s first movement, marked Allegro Maestoso. Right at the  beginning, de Waart and his players gave the music arresting, sharp-edged focus and tremendous tonal weight, serving notice that everybody was here to mean business.

With an inexorable tread, allied to a dark, and ominous ambience, the movement’s opening firmly established the piece’s overall character, the funereal mood occasionally lightened by the tenderest of soundings from strings and winds, softly coloured by superbly-wrought horn-playing, but forever held under the sway of the all-pervading march rhythm, whether deep and insidious or sudden, volatile and alarming! The movement is replete with directions for the players, who, here, encompassed the composer’s demands for the widest possible dynamic and colouristic variations imaginable without faltering in their overall purpose – the final, lumbering funeral cortege-like sequence followed a heart-rending episode of the most bitter-sweet nostalgia for times past, pitilessly bearing away all such remembrances as part of life’s temporal baggage and reaching a remorseless point of near-despair, one reinforced by the startling penultimate major/minor cry of pain from the brass, and the cataclysmic orchestral collapse into complete darkness at the end – all superbly brought off!

The evening’s only performance aspect I might have questioned had I been asked was the tempo taken by de Waart for the second movement – after a lengthy pause (actually specified by the composer as five minutes, though nobody in concert dares take quite that long!) the Andante Moderato begins, marked by Mahler Sehr gemächlich. Nie eilen. (Very leisurely – never rushed.) Here, I wanted more poignancy, more heart-stopping nostalgia at the opening than de Waart was prepared to give us, with the result that, to my ears, the Ländler rhythm sounded a shade bland, or matter-of-fact. This affected the central, more agitated section of the music as well, the contrast between the two moods less marked than I expected – of course de Waart‘s players took it all in their stride, making the conductor’s more urgent conception work almost as fluently as if no other existed. And conductor and players did inject a strain of echt-Viennese sweetness into the opening’s reprise with the most delicate of pizzicati giving way to heartfelt counterpointed melody at the music’s conclusion.

Two rapid-fire attention-grabbing timpani thwacks at the scherzo’s beginning launched the movement in no uncertain terms, after which the music’s insistent lines wove their sinuous strands every which way, as the composer intended. De Waart and his players tirelessly reiterated the lines and motifs as if participating in some kind of relentless dance – the music quotes one of Mahler’s own songs, a setting of a text from “Das Knaben Wunderhorn” (a famous collection of German folk poetry) describing how the Saint, Anthony, preached a sermon to the fishes, who, after the sermon finished, swam away, as sinful as before! A lovely interlude, mid-movement, featured some beautiful trumpet playing (I couldn’t see the player), after which the same garrulous lines returned, provoking a sudden tumultuous upheaval leading to what the composer called a ”cry of disgust” from the full orchestra – de Waart and the players certainly pulled out all the stops for that one!

After the music slunk darkly away a new mood suddenly materialised, in the form of mezzo-soprano Anna Larsson, beginning Mahler’s brief Urlicht movementaccording to her “artist bio”, fresh from singing Erda (from Wagner’s Der Ring) at the Berlin Staatsoper, and here sounding as if she had brought the character along with her, her tones world-weary and worn, and eschewing any kind of radiance. Still, her obvious artistry in shaping the words was beautifully augmented by the brass who replied exquisitely to her “O Röschen rot”, and by the oboe who echoed her reference to Heaven at “im Himmel sein” so tenderly.

Straightaway at the song’s end, its shaft of heavenly light was torn into fragments by ground-heaving irruptions from the lower strings, as well as a nightmarish full-orchestra outburst which reiterated the previous movement’s “cry of disgust”, and, incidentally, containing the only slightly miscued instrumental note I heard all evening – all part of the excitement of the players’ pushing the music to its extremes. This was the work’s final movement, the introduction to what the composer called the “Great Summons”, and featured some magnificent off-stage brass-playing, judged to perfection by de Waart and his musicians – what an incredible sense of space was created therein by the distant brasses and the near-subterranean percussion instruments, evoking a void, a firmament’s emptiness needing to be filled! And how incredibly the musicians responded, firstly with a spectrally-delivered brass reiteration of the well-known “Dies Irae” theme, and then a full-orchestral vision of Heaven in all its imagined glory, the whole awaiting the moment of Judgement.

Mahler began this next sequence with a terrifying pair of crescendo whose force seemed here to shake the building – in his own words, written for a programme note at a performance in Dresden in 1901: “ The earth trembles, the graves burst open, the dead arise and march forth in endless procession. The great and the small of this earth, the kings and the beggars, the just and the godless all press forward!” – de Waart didn’t rush the company almost off its feet (as some conductors have done!) but built the excitement in layers towards the moment where the bells rang out amid the clamour, and consternation gripped the assemblage – one of the problems of performing this work are that there are so many “climaxes” along the way that there’s a danger of the excitement “peaking” too early, and undermining what is still to come, but de Waart seemed to keep enough in reserve for the entry of the “Eternal Judge”, heralded by offstage trumpets excitedly warning the company of “the moment” and marked by a final terrified cataclysm of turbulence from the whole orchestra!

Just as arresting was the sudden stillness, broken by distant, apocalyptic trumpets and, incredibly, the song of a nightingale, played by the flutes. Came the gentle, hitherto unsignalled sounds of voices (the choir remained seated throughout their opening verses, as did the soprano, Lauren Snouffer), intoning the words of the Ode that had originally given Mahler the idea for his finale, which the composer then added to, giving the movement its final shape and form. The sounds drew us in, held us in thrall in a completely ingratiating manner – here was no terror, no darkness, no on-going suffering, but a new radiance and fresh hope in existence, what Mahler himself had indicated in his own words of the text – Was du geschlagen – zu Gott wird es dich tragen! (That for which you suffered – to God shall it carry you!).

Singers, choir and orchestra under de Waart’s steadily-wrought direction ascended the heights of the symphony’s concluding moments with ever-increasing fervour and excitement, creating over the final pages a resoundingly memorable sense of both occasion and fulfilment. How appropriate for de Waart to conclude his NZSO Music Director tenureship with this composer’s work, having already given us so many splendid Mahler performances – here, this heartfelt, utterly committed music-making got a fully-deserved enthusiastic and extended response from a truly appreciative audience.








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