A marathon effort of Mahler’s challenging Resurrection Symphony.

Hamer Hall, Melbourne
November 13, 2014

This performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the ‘Resurrection,’ marked the next step in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing Mahler cycle and there was a palpable sense of energy and excitement emanating from within the orchestra itself that resonated throughout Hamer Hall. As with much of the meatier Romantic repertoire, Mahler Two calls for Olympian playing from all musicians concerned. The MSO had also significantly expanded in order to accommodate the larger woodwind and brass sections required.

Sir Andrew Davis set off conducting the orchestra with gusto, the lower strings adding edge to the gruff opening passage. The massive first movement of the symphony is almost a complete work in itself, the orchestra exploring a huge range of contrasting colours and textures throughout the one movement. While playing securely, I felt the MSO never quite explored the very extremities of the dynamic range in a performance that felt a little bit safe. While undoubtedly good, it wasn’t an example of the MSO at their most brilliant.

Things looked up in the second movement, the front desk of the strings playing the first theme sweetly and with just the right touch of nostalgia. They passed the phrase nimbly between one another as written (although there were some occasional untidy moments in the fuller sections). While many soloists within the orchestra excelled, I felt the third movement suffered from a number of intonation issues in the more exposed brass and woodwind. Mention should be made, however, of the horn section led by Guest Principal, Andrew Bain. They played with delicacy and finesse, especially in the sonorous chorales.

The ethereal fourth movement is the pivotal moment in Mahler’s Second Symphony – a respite from the relentless energy of much of what has come before. Catherine Wyn-Rogers possesses a rich mezzo and her iconic three-note opening motive of the third movement was stunning. Her tone suffered somewhat later in the movement when pushed into a higher register and since both singers were situated at the back of the hall with the choir, they faced the added challenge of cutting through the full orchestral texture.

Sir Andrew Davis didn’t waste any time with the final movement – the entire performance was finished in 75 minutes – a brisk interpretation for a symphony that usually reaches an hour and a half. Perhaps Davis could have allowed for more stillness and repose throughout the evening?

The MSO chorus remained seated for their entrance and for the most part sang splendidly, although the unexpected cadence that follows the repeat of the opening phrase might have benefited from less tentative singing as it affected tuning. Soprano Erin Wall has a lovely instrument, but apart from her solo lines she sometimes struggled to be heard above the full choral texture.

The marathon length of Mahler’s Second Symphony provides a challenge for any orchestra. While this was an admirable interpretation of the work, I’m afraid it didn’t meet this reviewer’s expectations.