In this week’s In Your Living Room: Classical Music, Angus McPherson looks at two highlights from treasure troves of music streaming – an iconic performance by the Australian World Orchestra as part of ABC iView’s new classical music offering, and a highlight of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s 2019 season featured as part of Sydney Symphony Live.

The Australian World Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle
Sir Simon Rattle AWO
Sir Simon Rattle and the Australian World Orchestra

In exciting news for classical music fans looking for performances to enjoy as they while away the time in isolation, ABC iView has announced it will be releasing more than 20 full-length concerts over a period of six weeks. There’s already plenty to sink your teeth into, including French baroque group Nevermind’s tour for Musica Viva Australia last year (read Limelight’s review) and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s final performance before the COVID-19 shutdowns, featuring Emma McGrath as soloist in Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, under the baton of the TSO’s new Chief Conductor Eivind Aadland. A particularly special concert, however, is the Australian World Orchestra’s 2015 performance under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle, which took out a Helpmann Award and was later released as a recording on ABC Classic. An elite band comprising Australian musicians from orchestras all over the world, Rattle followed up Zubin Mehta in the ever growing list of high profile international conductors to lead the group.

The concert opens with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and a luminous flute solo by Alison Mitchell (then with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but now Principal at Queensland Symphony Orchestra) before Rattle’s wife, Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, joins the orchestra for Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliées (Forgotten Songs) in a special arrangement commissioned for Kožená from Australian composer Brett Dean (who is the subject of some close-ups in this footage, as he plays in the viola section).

 “A natural communicator, [Kožená] lets each song take possession and enter into her whole body, her wine-dark voice well-suited to the wistful emotions of these poignant melodies,” Clive Paget wrote in his review of the live concert. “Dean’s handiwork was everywhere apparent, from the touched-in droplets of Tears Fall in my Heart and the twinkling percussion gracing Green, to the Baxian hint of Celtic melancholy in The Shadow of the TreesMerry-go-round was a swirling riot, drawing a feisty response from Kožená. The coup de grâce however was her inhabiting of a troubled soul on the verge in the final song, Spleen, culminating in a spine tingling “hélas”.”

The main course is Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. “Simon Rattle is a superb Brucknerian, aware of the big picture, yet subtly interventionist in ways that ensure that this utterly individual symphony never feels as long as it actually is,” Paget wrote. “The way he shaped the first convulsive phrase on lower strings set the tone – detailed, yet remaining true to the long line. He physicalizes the entire event, reaching out to sections, willing them to join him in a mood or a dynamic. The orchestra responded in turn, the brass and wind skilfully negotiating their various exposed solos. And yes, it’s a massive orchestra – four Wagner tubas (doubling four of the eight horns), triple winds, three harps etc – but it was the repeated still points that made their mark in the blasted landscape of the Allegro molto at least as much as the mighty climaxes laden with meaty trombones, braying horns and apocalyptic trumpets.”

All in all, an incredibly exciting concert and a milestone in the Australian World Orchestra’s history – well worth a revisit.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Mahler’s Klagende Lied
Simone Young and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Simone Young conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

While the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has been rolling out content through its YouTube Channel – including this recent performance of Paganini by Concertmaster Andrew Haveron – they also have available on their website a number of past performances, dating back to 2018’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem. A recent highlight, however, was a performance that took place just last year. In December, Australian conductor – and SSO Chief Conductor Designate – Simone Young, led a masterful performance of Mahler’s cantata Das Klagende Lied with the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, tenor Steve Davislim, soprano Eleanor Lyons and bass-baritone Andrew Collis, as well as German mezzo Michaela Schuster.

Less frequently performed, certainly, than the symphonies, Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied, or Song of Lamentation, features a libretto written by the composer, who took his material from Clemens Brentano’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn and Grimm brothers fairytales. It’s a wild, fascinating work, with haunted forests through which Young proved an adept guide.

“Mysterious horn and wind calls open Waldmärchen (forest legend), Young painting the scene with a fine brush (those pianissimo horn echoes!), before fairy tale harps – Mahler specified up to six, but the SSO opted for a modest three – gave way to surging bass clarinet and a rousing orchestral crescendo,” I wrote in my review at the time. “Young, a commanding presence on the podium, deftly unspooled Mahler’s fairy tale from moments of exquisitely fine detail to raging climaxes, handling the many moving parts with aplomb. There’s no denying that Das Klagende Lied is not Mahler at the height of his powers – it can’t help but pale somewhat, for example, in the wake of Young’s transportive account of the Sixth Symphony last year – but there is so much to marvel at in its fresh, vivid colours and sweeping drama, especially in the hands of such a masterful musical storyteller as Young.”

You won’t often hear this in the concert hall, so this is a wonderful opportunity to get to know a younger Mahler. “The great novel is sketched,” Pierre Boulez said of this work. “We will read its chapters progressively in works to come.”