An all-pervading sense of finality characterised this programme presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under its Chief Conductor Andrew Davis on Thursday night. Since 2014, the orchestra has been working its way through performing and recording all ten symphonies by Gustav Mahler. In the past two years I’ve heard Symphonies 5, 6 and 7 and based on these efforts the project has been a highly successful undertaking. His sixth Symphony was heard last year.

Perhaps proof that bad occurrences happen in threes, the composer’s decade-long tenure at the Vienna Opera had come to an end following bitter artistic squabbling, his older daughter died of scarlet fever and diphtheria and Mahler himself was diagnosed with an incurable heart valve defect. Amongst the chiming cowbells and beatific visions of Austrian rural bliss, we experienced in the Sixth Symphony an outburst of raucous mania and lonely fretfulness reaching its apex with a hefty mallet delivering two cracking thuds on a large wooden box, described as blows of fate striking the composer. Any possible gleam of hope was extinguished in the final bars. From this point the composer regarded death as inescapable. Three farewells followed: his Ninth Symphony, the incomplete Tenth and Das Lied von der Erde that we heard on this occasion.

First though we witnessed an elegant performance of Schubert’s popular unfinished Symphony No 8. Just two movements were completed and only 20 bars of a Scherzo. Under Davis’s careful direction the orchestra demonstrated a keen sense of balance and shaped rapport from the opening bars. The shadowed and brooding nature of the opening Allegro moderato was clearly projected by strings and perfectly attuned oboe and clarinet. Phrasing pleased as did a sense of Classical buoyancy. This was contrasted by the gentle and refined Andante con moto with excellent solos from flute, oboe and clarinet. Nicely paced, the work seemed as Nikolaus Harnoncourt described it: “though unfinished, totally complete in itself”.

Apprehensive about starting a Ninth Symphony (Mahler referred to “the curse of the ninth”), he began writing an unnumbered ‘song symphony’ in 1909 entitled A Symphony for Tenor, Alto and Large Orchestra. Following a long tradition in Germany of setting fashionably ‘oriental’ poetry, Mahler chose to set six poems from a recently published anthology produced by Hans Bethge, Die chinesische Flöte. The items selected portray drinking to intoxication, a romantic glance at youthful eroticism and a final reflection on the fleeting nature of life and eternity of Nature.

Two distinguished soloists were chosen for this performance, British mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton. The opening song Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earthly Sorrow) arrived like a galleon in full sail. Skelton, singing from memory, was both a formidable stage presence and in very fine voice, the dark and bitter Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod! (Dark is life, dark is death!) with its final thump tellingly delivered. Veiled and meandering strings introduced Der Einsame im Herbst (The Solitary One in Autumn) where Wyn-Rogers’s burnished and golden mezzo-soprano splendidly portrayed, amongst lakeside mists, the magical Mein Herz ist müde (My heart is weary). Davis here was particularly responsive to every emotional impulse of the score: introspection, yearning and struggle. The delightfully simple picture of a pavilion within a pond with chatting silk-sleeved, youthful friends followed in Von der Jugend (Of Youth). The decorative and flirtatious Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) where young girls plucking flowers are disturbed by youths on horseback, with a final stab of lament, was delightfully carried by Wyn-Rogers. Skelton’s last song Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring) as a full invocation of intoxication Lasst mich betrunken sein! (Let me be drunk!) was outstanding.

The most famous music from this score is the final Der Abschied (The Farewell) a long, bittersweet epilogue, a meditation and stream of consciousness, structured as a kind of accompanied recitative. At 30 minutes duration it is as long as the first five songs combined. Its emotional weight overshadows all that precedes it. Principal oboist Jeffrey Crellin here requires acknowledgment for his excellent, mature understanding of the work. Wyn-Rogers floated phrases as smooth as silk. A sense of ecstatic abandon by orchestra and soloist characterised Die liebe Erde allüberall blüht auf im Lenz und grünt aufs neu! (The dear earth everywhere blooms in spring and grows green afresh!) Amongst a wash of harps and celeste and a scalic, descending major third, interestingly an inversion of the ascending 4th of the Adagietto of Symphony No 5, the final bars were rapturous as the word Ewig (forever) is repeated over and over. Here Mahler’s life ends and a profound silence for us all followed.

This reading will only improve in coming days as the rhetoric of the final movement settles and becomes more confident.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performs Das Lied von der Erde at Arts Centre Melbourne until July 1.


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