When the composer Mahler famously said, “The symphony is the world, it must contain everything,” he was naturally selfishly proclaiming how his own magnificent orchestral designs could narrate the entire compendium of life’s experiences – all their twists and turns.
As one approaches his most epic works, such as the mighty Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor, there is a fear that even the prophetic Gustav Mahler will have little to tell us about the fate of the world some 120 years from now.
There wasn’t much gnashing of teeth in the first half of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s programme cheers concert, and maybe that was good news. Mozart at his most exuberant, thanks to his overture the wedding of Figaroand then Clara Wieck-Schumann’s remarkable Piano Concerto, both uplifting.
For the second time, the ASO faced Norwegian conductor Eivind Aadland, and his Mozart is excellent – simply one of the best. Choosing a brisk tempo and striving for restrained energy and tightness, here was a performance that immediately brought a smile to one’s face. Aadland has an unusually wide gestural vocabulary, meaning he bobbles and dives a lot in front of the orchestra, but he plants his image of the music firmly in the players and shapes its sound with discipline.
Please invite him back to play more Mozart. It’s just a shame that he’s already engaged as the new chief conductor of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.
Wieck-Schumann has gathered many champions around him lately, most notably Anna Goldsworthy here in Adelaide. We had another in this concert, Sydney-born pianist Andrea Lam. At first her playing in concert seemed too highly romantic, too Lisztian for a work which the composer, exceptionally, began writing at the age of 13 and completed at 15, much more modern than it really was. In fact, it predates all the great piano concertos by Liszt, Robert Schumann and Brahms. But it worked, because this exciting, original work allows for many different interpretations.
The really special moment in this performance happened in the romance Middle movement in which the solo cello joins the piano in an intimate duet. Simon Cobcroft, the ASO’s principal cellist, played here with an ecstatic expression. It really sounded more like a cello concerto with piano accompaniment at this point.
After a spirited finale, Lam offered another work by Wieck-Schumann as an encore, her Romance in A minor. Composed in 1853, when her husband Robert Schumann had begun his descent into mental illness, its melodies were suffused with melancholy. One couldn’t help but notice how her warm, delicate piano style sounded so much like Brahms; only that he, then 20 years old and early in his career, was actually influenced by her.
Then it went to Mahler. So much has to be right in the performance to capture the apocalyptic vision of his Fifth Symphony. The ASO play it so seldom that one gets nervous – but not half as much as the players, of course, for whom this represents some of the most difficult orchestral music ever written.
And did it contain everything in the world? From the most desolate lows to the most ecstatic highs, yes it did. The gaming was bloody wonderful too. Compared to the sheer power and dedication of this performance, imperfections were minor.
Only Mahler could begin a symphony with a funeral march and follow it with a storm to be played “with the greatest violence” – as he states in the score. Typically, this trumpet heralded funeral march is played with halting, ceremonial earnestness. But Aadland chose to be different, giving him bursts of compressed energy and real menace. The effect was amazing. The only downside was that the soulful cello theme that slowly emerges felt slower than perhaps it should, and that there was a lack of momentum at times in other quieter moments of the symphony.
Still, the contrasts were electrifying. The screaming of the horns, the roar of the brass and the screeching of the violins in the storm movement sends shivers down your spine.
Along with due praise for Aadland, credit goes to principal horn Adrian Uren for so skillfully and flawlessly taking on the crucial solo horn part in the scherzo – stepping forward onto the stage as casually as a concert soloist for this third movement. To be fair though, all the players did great. It was great to see them take off and their fearless play was an inspiration.
For me personally, this was the best therapy I could imagine in these days of paralyzing uncertainty. Looking around at the audience, many of whom cheered heartily at the end, I think they all felt the same way.
Mahler is a composer who stands on the edge and dares to look. Yes, we could probably use more of his vision right now.
Cheers were presented at Adelaide Town Hall on Friday and Saturday. The next concert in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Series will be Affirmation, performed at the Town Hall on 13th and 14th May.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.