When the composer Mahler said that “the symphony is the world, it must contain everything”, he was of course selfishly proclaiming how his own creations for large orchestra could tell the complete compendium of life’s experiences – all of its trials and tribulations. .
The fear when approaching his most epic works, such as the powerful Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor, is that even the prophetic Gustav Mahler cannot tell us anything 120 years from now about the fate of the world.
There wasn’t much to cringe about in the first half of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra program Jubilation concert, and maybe that was good news. Mozart at his most exuberant, thanks to his openness to Figaro’s weddingthen the remarkable Piano Concerto by Clara Wieck-Schumann, both lifted our spirits.
Facing the ASO for the second time, Norwegian conductor Eivind Aadland, and his Mozart is excellent – simply among the best. Choosing a sustained tempo and opting for contained energy and tension, here is a performance that immediately put a smile on your face. Aadland has an unusually broad vocabulary of gesture, meaning he hops and dives considerably in front of the orchestra, but he firmly implants his image of music in the musicians and shapes their sound with discipline.
Invite him to play more Mozart, please. It’s just a shame he’s already signed up with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra as their new Principal Conductor.
Wieck-Schumann has collected plenty of champions lately, including Anna Goldsworthy here in Adelaide. We had in this concert another, the pianist born in Sydney Andrea Lam. At first, her playing in the concerto seemed too romantic, too Lisztian, for a work that the composer began to write, extraordinarily, at the age of 13 and completed at 15. Lam applied a liberal rubato and great eloquence that made the work ring. much more modern than it really was. In truth, it predates all the great piano concertos by Liszt, Robert Schumann and Brahms. But it worked, because this exciting and original work can withstand many different interpretations.
The really special moment of this performance happened in the romance middle movement, where the solo cello joins the piano in an intimate duet. Simon Cobcroft, the ASO’s principal cellist, performed here with a ravishing expression. It really sounded more like a cello concerto with piano accompaniment at this point.
After a cheerfully fiery finale, Lam offered another work by Wieck-Schumann, his Romance in A minor, as an encore. Composed in 1853 as her husband, Robert Schumann, began his descent into mental illness, its melodies were awash with melancholy. One couldn’t help but notice, too, how his warm, finely voiced piano style sounded so much like Brahms; except that it was he, 20 years old at the time and at the start of his career, who was influenced by her.
Then it was Mahler. So much has to go right in the interpretation in order to capture the apocalyptic vision of his Fifth Symphony. The ASO played it so rarely that one felt nerves of apprehension – but not half as much as the musicians, of course, for whom it represents some of the most difficult orchestral music ever written.
And did it contain everything in the world? From the darkest depths to the most ecstatic heights, yes. The game was pretty darn wonderful too. The imperfections were minor compared to the strength and commitment of this performance.
Only Mahler could begin a symphony with a funeral march, and follow it with a storm to be played “with the greatest vehemence” – as he indicates in the score. As a rule, this funeral march, announced by trumpet, is played with hesitant ceremonial gravity. But Aadland chose to be different, giving him bursts of compressed energy and a real threat. The effect was startling. The only problem was that the soulful, slowly emerging cello theme felt slower than it perhaps should, and the momentum sometimes seemed to be a bit lacking in other quieter moments of the symphony.
Nonetheless, the contrasts were electrifying. The cry of the horns, the breath of the brass and the cry of the violins in the movement of the storm sent shivers down the spine.
In addition to the praise due to Aadland, credit goes to principal horn player Adrian Uren, who so skillfully and perfectly interpreted the crucial role of the solo horn in the Scherzo – walking nonchalantly to the front of the stage like a concerto soloist for this third movement. It’s fair to say, however, that all of the players rose to the occasion magnificently. It was great to see them let loose, and their fearless play was inspiring.
For me, it was the best therapy I could imagine in these days of crippling uncertainty. Looking at the audience, many of whom were cheering loudly at the end, I think they all felt the same way.
Mahler is a composer who stands on the edge of the precipice and dares to look over the other side. Yeah, we could probably use his vision more right now.
Jubilation was presented at Adelaide Town Hall on Friday and Saturday. The next concert of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra Symphony Series will take place Affirmationperforming at the Hôtel de Ville on 13 and 14 May.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.