★★★★½ Davis reinvigorates Mahler with his generous attention to detail.
As symphony cycles go, Mahler’s has to be one of the most ubiquitous, so, musical merits (and there are plenty) of individual symphonies aside, a commitment to present all nine works in this behemoth canon is hardly radical thinking. But then again, Sir Andrew Davis is a conductor with a world-class pedigree; Mahler may be commonplace, but in his hands, there is still a great deal to discover in this music.
Before we reached this halfway point in the MSO’s Mahler cycle, Ravel’s more diminutive but nonetheless mighty Piano Concerto for the Left Hand provided an effervescent and richly coloured aperitif. French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard is impressively fearless, taking on the challenge of this terrifically demanding piece the day before performing all two hours of his mentor Messiaen’s technically ferocious marathon Vingt Regards at the Melbourne Recital Centre.
However, this is a performer of astounding focus and selfless musical devotion. Aimard’s sole concern is achieving absolute clarity, without squandering an ounce of energy on superfluous physical extravangance. That’s not to say his performance was even remotely inert however, in fact, the depth and textural muscularity he was able to extract from the piano seemed to defy the sober restraint of his delivery. His sense of tempo, in particular, was very finely honed, selecting the speed that could offer a crystalline quality of harmonic and figurative definition, rather than attempting to dazzle with blurred fingers at full throttle.
Davis and the MSO were sensitive partners, but they allowed themselves the freedom to occasionally peacock through this concerto’s orchestral interludes. This shifting perspective, from tutti chutzpah to hushed intimacy brought with it a heightened awareness of Ravel’s characteristically vibrant orchestrations, although the jazzy bluster of the second movement’s mocking strut of a march, with its muted trumpets and blue chords, was a little underplayed.
Sat in the balcony of the Hamer Hall, looking down on the full compliment of the MSO’s ranks, my birdseye perspective felt rather apt for the sprawling landscape of Mahler’s fifth symphony. It may be the first of his symphonies not to assert a conspicuous narrative, but this music is still rooted in a powerful dramatic intention. Like the Alpine vistas that were such a rewarding muse for Mahler, this symphony explores vast mountainous topographies, with soaring peaks, storm-blasted slopes and mysterious recesses. However Davis’ point of difference isn’t found in the grand gestures of this music, but it in the minutiae of its smallest details.
Principal trumpet Geoffrey Payne’s opening funeral march was biting, yet remote, as if floating in on a distant wind. This taut but carefully managed attention to detail was the modus operandi of this performance, bringing with it an astute sculptural finesse to the orchestral palette. Perhaps because of Davis’ choice to direct without a baton, there seemed to be a closer, more responsive connection to his musicians, and this highlighted the more intimate characteristics of this score.
The most unique reading came in the famous Adagietto. Davis’ tempo is fairly brisk, but this, in fact, stopped this sublime music from becoming overly sentimental. Again, detailed focus and pinpoint intonation brought a new dimension to this movement, offering a sensual tenderness without being weighed down by an excess of melancholy.
In especially fine form were the MSO’s brass players, who were able to conjure a flawlessly blended sound as a section while also delivering A-grade solos. During his third movement solo, principal Horn Timothy Jones’ succulent, robust tone, in particular, was so good it bordered on indecent.
Of course, the successful balance of precision, dramatic flair, textural fidelity and showmanship present in this performance can all be traced back to the podium. One of the great risks of this symphony is a failure in dramatic endurance, but with such a finely shaded level of nuance on display, this account never once sagged. This is surely thanks to Davis’ unflagging enthusiasm: he’s a conductor who brings a nurturing eagerness to the concert hall and this incredible generosity is mirrored in the superbly crafted musical forms he inspires from this orchestra. Mahler cycles might be old hat, but Davis makes this music feel brand new.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis present Mahler’s Symphony No 5 and Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand at the Hamer Hall, Monday 21 March.