A voluminous night with Poulenc and Mahler…writes Fraser Beath McEwing

October 30, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Poulenc and Mahler made a satisfying pairing in the SSO Master Series at the Sydney Opera House last night. They both offered passages no louder than a purring cat juxtaposed with kegs of gelignite being ignited.

David Dury climbed into the pilot’s seat of the Opera House organ as soloist in Poulenc’s Organ Concerto in G minor. Twenty metres below, a small orchestra comprising only strings and tympani didn’t look nearly substantial enough to provide the other bookend. But the logic of the combination became clear once the concerto’s seven sections (played without a break) began with a mighty Bach-like roar from the organ, itself a vast collection of instruments. There was plenty of variety and power on tap.

I have a great love for this instrument, which is the largest mechanical organ in the world. When Drury turned up the wick, it stirred the backbone.

David Dury

David Dury

I must say I loved the sound as much as the music, largely because I was not as familiar with Poulenc’s organ concerto as I am with some of his other works. I found myself unconsciously attracted to the quietly contemplative, religiously framed sections contrasted against huge outbursts of sound which conveyed a similar feeling to the grand organ works of Bach, but cast in a 20th century mould. Towards the end there was a memorable, although brief, cadenza as the organ and tympani went head to head in an exciting duel.

This piece was last performed by the SSO twelve years ago, so members of the audience could be forgiven for not knowing when it had finished. They went into standby mode and waited for conductor Jonathan Nott to stop waving his arms and turn around before applauding.

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony filled the second half of the program to overflowing, since its five movements took nearly an hour and twenty minutes to perform. While that might seem daunting when it begins to roll out before you, it is so arresting that you get swept along in a torrent of remarkable music so that time doesn’t seem to drag.

Having said that, this is not Mahler’s most popular symphony, even though he thought is was at the time he finished it. Audiences prefer numbers 1, 4, 5 and 2 in that order. However, when it was premiered in Prague in 1908, the audience so loved the seventh symphony they gave it a fifteen-minute standing ovation. The 2014 Opera House audience stayed seated and were not quite so enthused. They gave the conductor three calls before petering out and showing more interest in the exits.

Mahler was not a full time composer. He had to earn a living by conducting in winter and could only get around to composing in summer. He struck composer’s block with this seventh symphony. Having completed the two ‘night music’ movements with relative ease, he couldn’t get moving with the other three. It was only went he gave up trying, and began mindlessly rowing his boat on a lake that the muse struck. He hurried ashore and finished the rest of the symphony in three weeks.

Jonathan Nott

Jonathan Nott

The symphony calls for a whopper orchestra, with two harps, brass and woodwinds to burn, a guitar, a mandolin (seen, but hardly heard) and a number of other seldom-included instruments like a tenor horn and cowbells. When Mahler conducted this symphony he brought along his own set of cowbells – obviously not trusting the local bovine examples.

The symphony begins with a summoning passage from the tenor horn, a valved brass instrument in the euphonium family. It produces a round, rich sound. But once the young man playing it had done extensive service in the first movement he sat for the next hour staring benignly into space. Aw, Gustav, I wanted more tenor horn.

The seventh symphony, like the fifth, comes in five movements, without the inclusion of voices. It has a big movement at either end, a Nachtmusik movement next to them, and a flying scherzo in the middle.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Although it is fashionable these days to like Mahler (a trend eagerly supported by Paul Keating) I can’t help but genuinely love the musical figures, the harmonies and the seemingly endless variety of instrumental combinations that he offers. It is difficult not to cheer after the shattering end to the final movement of the seventh. It is stirring stuff.

The conductor, Jonathan Nott, is to be congratulated on the quality and interpretation of this Mahler symphony. He is a very active conductor and demonstrates that he knows exactly where he is to the split second. Working from a massive score that looked more like the plans to a shopping centre, he clearly drew the best from the orchestra whose members appeared to love the music they were producing.


Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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