Sydney Symphony Orchestra is renowned for its meaningful programs, where the individual items are connected through some historical, musical, or even technical thread. Whether most members of the audience notice that the program focuses on great Romantic masterpieces, a particular year in history, or the works of one composer is another matter. The program of this week’s subscription concerts, however, was less than convincing. The juxtaposition of Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, op.18 with the Gustav Mahler’s mammoth, ninety-minute-long Symphony No. 6 in A minor offered unfair comparisons. Aficionados waited for Simone Young’s rendition of ‘The Sixth’ with great anticipation. By contrast, Britten’s brilliant opus seemed slight and ill-fitting, the interval came too soon, and the concert finished later than most SSO concerts. Less, on this occasion, would have been more.
Les Illuminations – based on French poems by Arthur Rimbaud – is an early example of Britten’s fascination with the human voice and its colourful combination with instruments. (First performed in 1940, it precedes Peter Grimes by five years.) The British composer successfully adopted an idiomatic style in which the French words fit perfectly while remaining true to his own musical language. Furthermore, it is a curious fact that the work can be performed with either a soprano or tenor soloist, an uncommon liberty granted by the composer who wrote the work first with a female voice in mind but recorded it with his life partner, Peter Pears.
Two expatriate Australians stood at the helm of this performance, with tenor Steve Davislim performing the solo part, and Simone Young conducting. It was a solid if hardly memorable reading of the work. In the opening movement, the daring apposition of one trumpet-like passage on the violas in B flat major, and another on the violins in E major (the key furthest away), felt ordinary rather than shocking; perhaps, because the composer’s instruction to play these runs in an eerie tone (sul ponticello) was not audibly followed. Delicate hints in the score were noted but at times executed unclearly. The elegant rubato of these songs (demonstrated, for example, in the seminal Lockenhaus Festival recording, available on YouTube), a hard task indeed, was not a main feature of this performance.
However, the robust accents and dynamic contrasts of the second movement (Villes) worked well, and Davislim’s vocal control, restrained vibrato, and empathy with Rimbaud’s beautiful lines produced touching moments in Phrase, reminiscent of the refined elegance of Debussy’s young antihero, Pelléas. This approach, along with sensitive orchestral playing of sinewy chromatics and mostly soft textures provided the background to the strong sexual undertones of the poem, and made Being Beauteous (dedicated to Peter Pears) one of the pivotal movements of the work.
No performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 takes place without a certain sense of elation. It is often referred to as the ‘Tragic’ (according to Bruno Walter, Mahler himself accepted the name), and the heroic battle of a protagonist against the overpowering forces – a well-known topic at the turn of the twentieth century, particularly since Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss in 1898 – depicted in music easily leads to a cathartic experience. Understandably so. There is a massive orchestra on stage with impressive numbers, such as nine horns, six trumpets, five players in each of the woodwind sections, and so on. There is the monumental arch of the four movements, culminating in a Finale, which in itself is over thirty minutes long. Then there is the mesmerising opening of the piece which feels, over the relentless ostinato of the lower strings, as if the whole Bismarckian army is on a menacing parade.
Simone Young had her own share of heroic battles against intractable forces as musical director of Opera Australia from 2001 to 2003. Young, a welcome guest to the SSO, took a ‘no prisoners’ approach (not uncharacteristic of her musical personality) and conducted with focus and brisk tempi, as if her life depended on it. The orchestra responded with concentrated professionalism and a high technical standard; together they created a sonic world bursting with energy. In absolute symbiosis, conductor and her team successfully maintained this energy all the way until the tragic end in the last movement.
This, undoubtedly, was the greatest strength of the performance. The sweeping movements of Young’s hands guided the orchestra through tempo and character changes, never hesitant, never questionable. This worked excellently, for example, in the relentless drive to the first movement’s conclusion. It was similarly successful in the turmoils of the Finale, where the powerful brass section produced volumes and sound effects seldom heard in the Concert Hall – often with the instruments help up high, so that the sound came out without restrictions. Fury was unleashed here on a dramatic scale, culminating in the three heart-wrenching hammerblows. (Mahler composed all of them but later crossed out the last, finding it too excessive.)
Among so many high-tension, powerful sections, the chances for intimacy, tenderness, or gentle moments warranted greater exploration. To be sure, the pastoral scenes with cowbells were atmospheric throughout the symphony, but the inward quietness of the slow movement with muted strings, gentle plucked sounds (pizzicati), and its delicate little tempo hesitations did not feel relaxed until at least the serene English horn solo. Instead of forward-looking energy, I would have preferred a more peaceful, melancholy feeling in the music.
The Scherzo movement might be marked unusually Wuchtig, or ‘weighty’, but its middle section has one of Mahler’s most charming tempo markings: altväterisch, or ‘old-fashioned’. This oboe melody should shine with unrestrained rubato, a free handling of the rhythmic structure. It did have some freedom, and the playing was superb, but the fine details of such an intricate melody could have been brought out more effectively by the conductor.
Young and her orchestra delivered a mighty performance – powerful and of a reliably high standard. I only wish the delicate tenderness of some sections had curbed the driving energy and created greater contrasts within this monumental work.
Mahler Six, conducted by Simone Young and performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, is being performed at the Sydney Opera House from 8 to 11 August 2018. Performance attended: August 8.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.