A most auspicious start to Sir Andrew Davis’s anticipated Mahler project.

Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne

July 24, 2014

A Mahler cycle is always an event, for orchestra, conductor and audience. For an orchestra it’s both a test and a chance to nail its colours to the mast; a conductor gets to put his stamp on the sound as well as to express his thoughts on these complex, emotional works; and audiences get to hear nine of the greatest, most influential essays in the symphonic repertoire. The tension was therefore understandably palpable last night at Hamer Hall for Sir Andrew Davis’s first bite of Mahler’s veritable cherry orchard. That, and the sight of the MSO, conductor and soloist sporting AIDS ribbons out of respect for the many lives tragically lost on route to Melbourne’s current HIV conference meant that you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.

Canadian soprano Erin Wall eased us into proceedings with a radiant account of Richard Strauss’s appropriately valedictory Four Last Songs. She’s a young voice very much on the rise at the moment, with a repertoire encompassing Mozart’s Donna Anna and Arabella at the Met, and it’s a glorious instrument – free and full with a warm bloom not unlike the late, great Margaret Price. Sir Andrew Davis is a canny old Straussian from way back and knows exactly how to make these songs take flight. His mastery of the ebb and flow and attention to dynamic detail was evident from the outset and the MSO responded superbly with the strings moving as one with the conductor and other departments discreetly touching in the details of Strauss’s delicate orchestrations.

The first song, Frühling, was an object lesson in balance. Davis ensured that Wall’s creamy tone could be heard across the full range (the middle to upper register was always rewarding, only occasionally in some of the later songs did Wall’s daring pianissimos get lost beneath the orchestral texture). Song No 2, September, found her equally impassioned, reaching out physically to the audience in her urgency to communicate. Davis’s tiny pull back before “Sommer lächelt” (Summer smiles) highlighted a beautiful swell in the MSO strings and Wall’s breath control here was, well, breath-taking. And how raptly she phrased “Langsam tut er die Müdegewordenen Augen zu” (slowly he closes his wide, tired eyes).

Beim Schläengehen (On Going to Sleep) must be one of the most glorious songs ever written. The warm build from cellos and basses through the higher strings was pitch perfect while the achingly nostalgic violin solo was movingly dispatched by concertmaster Dale Bartrop. The sheen of string sound continued into the final Im Abendrot (In the Sunset). Erin Wall’s delivery of “O weiter, stiller Friede!” (O peace, so wide and silent) was deeply felt and Davis’s control of those final chords with their ecstatic trills on piccolos was heavenly indeed.

Back for the Mahler and I’m delighted to say that things got even better. The First Symphony may be a young man’s work, and very much a Mahlerian statement of intent, but there’s nothing like 50 years of experience when it comes to bringing it off. Having heard more fail than succeed over recent years – Ashkenazy and even Mehta failed to move me – it was a pleasure to hear Davis’s unerringly paced interpretation.

The immaculate opening shimmering strings and bubbly clarinets benefitted from the clarity and precision that are Andrew Davis hallmarks. The first arrival of the big ‘walking’ tune was the only moment in the reading that felt slightly undernourished. From the ‘tutti’ restatement onwards, with Davis leaping around on the podium like a goat in the Tyrol, things got into their stride and never let up. Flute, clarinet and bassoon were especially lovely here, and the slightly ominous tuba note with harp and bass drum leading into the climactic section was superbly handled. When it came, Mahler’s first enormous moment of release was duly spectacular. Stunning cymbals (and how often can they let you down?), heroic trumpet fanfares, and a hairbreadth of a pause before the perfectly placed horn whoops – Davis ensured that the earth truly moved as it should! (By the way, I have a feeling a Sydney audience would’ve applauded after this movement – just putting that out there…)

The second movement was perfectly paced and featured crisp yet weighty strings, cracking woodwind and lovely muted horn calls, sharp and pungent. Davis achieved an excellent pesante feel and drove it along most theatrically contrasting it well with the middle section, which felt interestingly more wistful than usual. There were a couple of rough brass patches towards the end, but nothing to derail a pretty thrilling ride.

The mock-solemn third movement trotted along comfortably and achieved that important sense of an approaching funeral procession through keen attention to dynamics and dramatics. The so-called Jewish interludes were perky but more Viennese operetta than Fiddler on the Roof. The interlude with its suggestion of all the angels in heaven was magical.

Davis drove into the finale without a break, again superb work on bass drum and cymbals and some brilliant timpani (nice to see a woman on one set as well – an excellent Christine Turpin). Davis’s control and dynamic shaping told again and again – those tiny suspensions here and there before key moments made everything land perfectly. By the adrenalin packed endgame the brass were certainly firing on all cylinders, the horns standing to ring out their final fanfares.

Without doubt this was one of the more exciting live Mahler symphonies I’ve heard in a while. The audience I think felt so too – the chatter as we left the hall suggests anticipation of the next instalment will be considerable. It seems as if Melbourne has something grand to look forward to.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra plays Mahler and Strauss on July 25 and 26. Photos by Peter Tarasiuk.