An unexpected light

SIR ANDREW DAVIS CONDUCTS MAHLER 5

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Saturday March 19

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (en.wikipedia.org)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard

With the bit between their collective teeth, the MSO musicians mounted an impressive assault on the central Mahler leviathan, their chief conductor bringing a surging energy to a score that other conductors handle as though its opening funeral march determines the complete score.   From principal trumpet Geoffrey Payne’s opening call-to-obsequies, the ground was set for a reading that spoke clearly but at its own pace with an elastic approach to metre that initially led to some slight discrepancies between the brass corps and the rest.  But the energy behind this reading came bursting out in the 13th bar’s explosive full-orchestra chord and was sustained throughout the following grim pages.

But what eventually distinguished this performance was an immediacy of impact, even in pesante passages throughout each of the five movements.  Through the Sturmisch  bewegt that follows the march, the textural balance ensured that secondary voices came across with appropriate clarity and, although Mahler’s symphonic scores have plenty of mud-pools waiting for any orchestra, Davis managed to keep the MSO’s output lucid and so much more involving than when an audience is bombarded with bullying heftiness.  Not that matters are made easy since, after the second movement’s whip-crack first gestures, the development becomes something of a passage of play between orchestral blocks.  But what came across here was a clearly perceptible development, the variety of harmonic and digital shifts and juxtapositions a genuine intellectual engagement with the listener, more than a demonstration of temperament and hyped-up dynamics.

Two problem movements confront every interpreter of this work.  Both the central; Landler and the Rondo-Finale have the potential – realized all too often – of wearing out both players and patrons.   Both are lengthy, even if the middle movement has a more moderate emotional cast, and in both the seams between sections can be over-exposed, as though the paragraphs have to be sharply delineated: finished with that, on with this. Davis gave us a changeable sonic landscape, distinguished by a lightness of touch even in difficult juxtapositions of attack and ever-changing dynamics, as in the melange prior to Letter 4.   And, for the first time in many years, the last movement radiated bonhomie and a spirit-infusing warmth; usually, I’m waiting for the concluding rush with impatience, worn out by what all too often sounds like the composer’s self-indulgence in delaying tactics.   As with the Landler, this finale had a cogency and an insightfully driven suspense that made sense of  its episodes as a cumulative process.

Just as deftly accomplished, the Adagietto found itself subjected to sensible treatment; without interpolated pauses, its melodic drift given full weight but the entire movement kinetic – no oleaginous Venetian pooling but an ardent and controlled emotional exhalation with the MSO strings steady and cohesive, moments like the pianissimo shift back to F Major achieved with minimal fuss or pausing for effect.   Further, for once, the harp element from Yinuo Mu made itself a constituent part of the action, not just a presence in the opening bars and at the first high-point.

Of course, this work is no strange territory for the MSO who recorded it about a decade ago under Markus Stenz as part of that conductor’s review of the full Mahler symphonic range, and revisited it less than  three years ago with Simone Young.   Yet, this time around, its remembered longueurs dissipated in a forceful and fresh interpretation, giving much promise for the next two works in the cycle which present even greater challenges.

As a preface to the main work, Pierre-Laurent Aimard took the solo part for Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand; not a work you hear often live, partly due to the scarcity of disabled performers and also owing, one suspects, to the desire of most pianists to exercise their craft using all their gifts.  Davis and his players provided a louring background for Aimard, whose handling of the deliberately wide-ranging keyboard part was hard to fault, particularly in the necessary leaps between bass and treble and the multitude of arpeggio-like passages by which Ravel gives the executant full coverage of the instrument’s range.

Still, this concerto comes to life in its two cadenzas which are packed with wrenching difficulties, although Aimard negotiated them with authority and abstained from an over-employment of the sustaining pedal.   Particularly impressive were the pianist’s emphatic delivery at both ends of the compass, including some thunderous bass clusters, and the penetrating duet with clarinet under the orchestra’s clarion calls near the work’s thrilling conclusion.

Aimard is certainly the first guest I know of to treat an MSO audience to an encore by Boulez.   He played three of the Douze Notations with agility and a cogent communication of the composer’s febrile piano style.   As the title indicates, the works are rapidly done and came as a kind of spicy interlude in an afternoon where gravity was a significant element. More interestingly, this encore, although some worlds away from the expected Debussy or Ravel miniature, did not appear to upset the MSO’s Mahler aficionados.  But then, as I say, the Notations are over very quickly.

Today Aimard performs Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 5 pm, after having played them in Sydney last week following three performances of Messiaen’s Des canyons aux etoiles . . .   A true devotee, the pianist studied with Messiaen’s widow, Yvonne Loriod, so you can expect an ultra-informed performance.

And the Ravel concerto and Mahler Symphony will be repeated in Hamer Hall on Monday March 21 at 6:30 pm.