Gustav MAHLER – Symphony No. 3 in D Minor
Robert WIREMU – Waiata “Tahuri koe ki te maunga teitei”
Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano)
Wellington Young Voices & Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St Paul Children’s Choir
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir
Karen Grylls and Robert Wiremu (chorus directors)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Gemma New (conductor)
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Friday, 31st March 2023
“Symphony is like the world – it should contain everything!” – words spoken by Gustav Mahler during a famous encounter in Helsinki in 1907 with his near-contemporary, the Finnish symphonist Jean Sibelius. The idea of what constituted a “symphony” had brought forth vastly different responses from both men, Sibelius having declared his attraction to the “severity” and “profound logic” of symphonic writing (though he had, in fact, only just freed himself from a Tchaikovskian kind of romantic utterance evident throughout his first two symphonies). Mahler, by comparison, had hit the ground running as a symphonist with his idea of the form representing an expansionist, all-encompassing kind of aesthetic expression.
This “world view” of Mahler’s had been evident in each one of the eight symphonies he had thus far completed – and it was the massive Third Symphony of 1896 which to this day seems to be the most unequivocal expression of this philosophy (averaging about 1hr. 45m. in performance, it’s the longest in duration of all Mahler’s symphonies). While working on this piece twelve years before his conversation with Sibelius, Mahler had remarked to a friend that “to call it a symphony is really incorrect, as it does not follow the usual form – to me, the term “symphony” means creating a world with all the technical means available”.
The composer had originally attached a programme giving each of the six movements separate titles underlining the work’s ultra-pantheist vision, the details of which he eventually suppressed before the work’s first performance, but which still appear in various subsequent programme notes (as was the case here) – Mahler tended to draw back from his frequent initial euphoria regarding any such programme attached to a work, commenting in a note to a critic on this occasion, that “no music is worth anything if you first have to tell the listener what lies behind it…….what he is supposed to experience in it – you just have to bring along ears and a heart and – not least – willingly surrender to the rhapsodist!”. While I heartily agree in general terms, I still can’t in this instance resist the fascination of reproducing (again!) the composer’s underlying thoughts regarding the music…….
Mvt. 1 Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In
Mvt. 2 What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me
Mvt. 3 What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me
Mvt. 4 What Man Tells Me
Mvt. 5 What the Angels Tell Me
Mvt. 6. What Love Tells Me
Mahler in fact at first planned a seventh movement (“What the Child Tells Me”), but instead reworked the material as the finale of his Fourth Symphony, further underlining the connections and cross-references that especially abound in his first Four Symphonies, particularly with his use of either words or melodic settings of the same taken from the German folk-poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn which had appeared in the early 1800s. The work’s fifth movement “What the Angels Tell Me” uses one of these Das Knaben Wunderhorn poems ,”Es sungen drei Engel” (Three Angels sang), while the previous movement “What Man Tells Me” uses a text from Friedrich Nietzsche‘s Also sprach Zarathustra, ”O Mensch! Gib Acht!” (O Man! – take heed!).
Interestingly, we were treated on this occasion to a similar kind of “seventh movement” as a prelude to the symphony, a waiata, written by Voices NZ Artistic Advisor Robert Wiremu especially for this particular concert, and performed by the different choirs, conducted by Karen Grylls. The waiata’s melodic lines drew from different impulses and resonances in Mahler’s work, a fast rhythmic counterpoint set against a floating choral, the words delineating whakapapa – maunga, awa, moana – and equating with the latter composer’s salutations via the symphony’s opening theme to the famous flowing melody of Brahms’ finale to his First Symphony.
It now seems a far cry from the days when Mahler’s music was generally not regarded favourably, and needed the advocacy of people like John Hopkins here in this country, who in 1959 had to put up with opposition (“this boring music”) from the Broadcasting Service Directorship to what was the first National Orchestra performance of a Mahler Symphony (No.4 in G). Hopkins staunchly persisted and Mahler’s music came through, with others such as Uri Segal, Franz-Paul Decker, and more recently Pietari Inkinen and Edo de Waart securely establishing the NZSO’s credentials across all of the composer’s completed symphonies as a “Mahler orchestra”.
Having witnessed some of these earlier ventures (my list by no means an exhaustive one!) and being able to readily recall the impact made by a number of these performances, I was delighted that Gemma New chose such a quintessential work in the orchestra’s recent history with which to mark her concert tenure’s beginning as the NZSO Principal Conductor. Franz-Paul Decker’s was, I think, the first Mahler Sixth I heard live, underlining for me the ironic twist of New’s stunning achievement here with the same orchestra and music when set against the memory of Decker’s by now historic comment that he found women conductors “aesthetically unpleasing”!
All part of the on-going ebb and waft of impression, opinion and reaction among people, a process to which New herself has appeared more than equable in the interviews with her I’ve read. Her concern seems, first and foremost, the music – and here she’s certainly at one with the composer, who, in one of my all-time favourite anecdotes concerning his aforementioned all-embracing world vision, once went as far as admonishing the young Bruno Walter, who was visiting him at Steinbach, Upper Austria at the time of the symphony’s composition, for looking around at the alpine scenery! – with the words, “Don’t bother looking up there – it’s already all been composed by me!”
For Mahler at the time of writing, it had “almost ceased to be music…..hardly anything but the sounds of nature”. New and the orchestra wholeheartedly plunged themselves into this awe-inspiring world right from the work’s beginning, with the silences as baleful as the upheavals of sound. I was particularly taken here with the ferocity of the ‘cellos’ attack in their upward-rushing figures, seeming to burst out of the louring gloom created by the brass’s and percussions’ elemental tread (with David Bremner’s sonorous trombone playing simply a voice for the ages!).Throughout the epic of the opening movement’s unfolding came these incredible releases of energy, by turns soulful, playful, jaunty and menacing – a world that “contains everything”, as Mahler told Sibelius that day – before driving inevitably towards a joyfully unbuttoned, almost savage frenzy of exhilaration at the movement’s end – no wonder the MFC audience were, despite convention, transported to spontaneous applause in response!
After the orgiastic energies of the Symphony’s First Part we enjoyed the relatively limpid lyricism of the second movement’s opening, oboe and strings here creating a “woods-and-fields” world of dream-like interaction, whimsically enlivened by rhythmic and dynamic contrasts which brought the nature-world to pulsating life, all most evocatively shaped by New and her players. The third movement was begun just as innocently, though in a more playfully evocative way at the outset with impulses and gestures associated with the animal kingdom characterised most bewitchingly by the musicians, winds and muted trumpets leading to various rumbustious activities. How diverting and magical, then, was the “posthorn” sound ringing out from the distance (trumpeter Michael Kirgan doing his thing evocatively and near-faultlessly off-stage) – perhaps a fateful impinging by man on the natural world? A second posthorn call was followed by a sudden “cry of anguish” (humankind identified by nature as a threat?) before a kind of desperate rumbustication brought the movement’s curtain down.
Almost as enigmatic as the materialisation of the Earth-Mother Erda in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” was mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s appearance ( strikingly clad in silver) during those last few precipitate bars of the previous movement, ready to intone Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song” from Also Sprach Zarathustra – one felt completely “drawn into” the mystical beauty of it all, as singer and players unerringly placed their tones into the firmament of those strangely vast spaces. What an array of sounds! Such distilled beauty in places such as with “Die Welt ist tief” (The world is deep”) from both voice and instruments, in particular the horns (led by Sam Jacobs) and the winds (led by Robert Orr) – and then, for me, a “lump-in-throat” archway of vocal loveliness from Sasha Cooke, at the words “Doch all’ Lust will Ewigkeit…” (But all joy sings eternity…) – a glorious moment!
If such beauties weren’t disarming enough, the subsequent movement “What the Angels Tell Me” featuring both soloist and the different choirs put the music’s enchantment beyond all doubt, as the sounds from those voices drew our listeners’ sensibilities skywards and into the celestial regions – the teamwork between the different groups of voices, the soloist and the orchestra was exemplary, and those “bimm!-bomm!s” with which the work finished kept resounding in this listener’s mind’s ear long after the concert was concluded.
How perfectly natural and unassuming it was for the singers, soloist included, to quietly sit down even while Gemma New was signalling to the orchestra to begin the great adagio movement which concluded the work (Decker had, I remembered, kept the choir members standing right to the symphony’s end, to their, and the audience’s discomfiture!). The transition made, we settled back to take in the splendours of this much-lauded piece, regarded in some circles as the greatest slow movement written since the time of Beethoven! Subscribing to such a view is beyond the scope of this article, my notes focusing instead on the rapt purity of the playing of the opening string paragraphs, and the cohesion between the sections, each “voice” seeming to be in complete rapport with the others. As the movement unfolded and its purposes by turns placed accord, confrontation and/or conflict to the forefront, the playing in all sections moved surely between serenity and incandescence – horns and strings, for example, in the movement’s first confrontational passage six or so minutes into the movement, the flute, oboe and horn lines stimulating the richest of responses from the strings a few minutes later, to be followed by the movement’s great midway watershed of tonal outpourings as the strings dare the brasses to match their full-blooded exhortions – there were no holds barred, either here, or as the symphony built up to its final climax – this was Mahler, after all, where there are no half-measures, and in which New and her players fully understood and expressed that understanding nobly and sonorously.
A truly notable leadership debut for Gemma New, then, and the beginnings of a partnership which on this showing promises much for the orchestra and for its supporters – best wishes to all regarding its on-going success!