A briefish Mahler fest: Music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

December 5, 2019 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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If you love Mahler, this was a concert for you.

Photo: Jay Patel

The SSO devoted a whole Masters Series program to one Mahler work, Klagende Lied (‘song of lamentation’ or ‘sorrowful song’) which runs, in three parts, for just over an hour. That’s a long time to be lamenting or sorrowful, but a tad short for a whole concert. A warmup overture like, say, Vaughn Williams’ The Wasps would have done nicely without stealing Gustave’s thunder.

I wondered at the subtitle of ‘Simone Young’s Visions of Vienna’ too, nit-picker that I am. Mahler certainly wrote the original version while a student at the Vienna Conservatory in 1878, but how did Simone’s visions of Vienna get into the act? Maybe, like the audience at this SSO concert, she was transported by Mahler’s vision-forming music. The printed program backed up the theme with a full-page advertisement in praise of Vienna without suggesting what to do about it. Okay, so I probably missed the point.

Simone Young

Like some other leading composers, Mahler seldom seemed prepared to finish a work and walk away from it.  Klagende Lied was in his category. Its first incarnation was just short of an extravaganza, deploying two large orchestras (one offstage), 11 vocal soloists and a full choir. But before its first performance in 1901 Mahler got the wobbles and took his scissors to the score. He reduced the soloists to four, the harps from six to two and gave the offstage orchestra an early mark after part one – only to then decide to do away with the first part altogether. He virtually re-wrote the entire work in 1898, and in that two-part form, it might have remained. But in 1969 an earlier three-part version was discovered, with much of its grand architecture in place, giving programmers two choices. It was the three-part version, incorporating some later revisions, that the SSO performed last night – for the first time in Australia. It employed two orchestras, one of which was offstage – if you can call a collection of wind instruments and percussion an orchestra – plus four soloists and choir.

Fraser Beath McEwing

It is not entirely clear whether the young Mahler used a Grimm’s fairy tale for the whole work or whether he spliced in other stories as well. Not that it really matters, because so much good program music is written around outlandish plots. In fact, they usually give a composer more latitude in imaginative scoring. The three parts of this cantata areWaldmärchen (Forest Legend), Der Spielmann (The Minstrel) and Hochzeitsstück (Wedding Piece). They tell the story of competing brothers, one of whom murders the other, a self-important queen in her castle which later collapses, a chaotic wedding, and some spooky stuff with a bone that sings and a flute that talks. In addition to an enhanced SSO, there were four distinguished soloists (soprano Eleanor Lyons, mezzo Michaela Schuster, tenor Steve Davislim and bass-baritone Andrew Collins) with the always uplifting Sydney Philharmonia Choirs filling the stalls behind the orchestra.

In many ways this was embryo Mahler, throwing a light on what he would become but, having said that, it was exciting, often surprising and never boring music. Simone Young had huge forces to lead, and did it superbly, with an oversize orchestra on stage, another somewhat ineffectual one outside in the stony stairway, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and four vocal soloists who looked as though they were playing musical chairs, so often did they have to get up to sing a few bars and sit back down again. The choir did its share of squat exercises too.

While one could be critical of the physicality, it did heighten the drama that this stirring music portrayed. The choir sang with passion and commitment, competing with an orchestra of immense power – to create some wonderfully overwhelming passages. Of the four soloists, soprano Eleanor Lyons stood out with luscious big notes – always hard to achieve in the muffling acoustics of the Opera House concert hall. At the risk of being tarred and feathered, dare I suggest that miking might be considered for cantatas and oratorios?  There is little artistic merit in a good singer’s mouth and lungs working but, virtually no sound reaching the walls.

Finally, sorry if this is a spoiler, but those who might nod off during the whispering penultimate bars of this work could die of fright when the last chord hits them like a bazooka.

SSO Opera House concert, 4 December 2019

Fraser Beath McEwing is a pianist, commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation which assists talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of five novels and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home. A body of his work can be found on www.frasersblography.com

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