Saturday, May 22, 2010


The Ashkenazy / Sydney Symphony Orchestra Mahler Odyssey continued with a virtually sold out hall on Friday night, the 21st.

Some had had a busy afternoon and I have to say that I'd much rather have been there than where I was, and likewise slipped in at interval for what we had really come - the Mahler 5.

Things warmed up with some young Richard Strauss, starting with the orchestra's first performance of his Guntram Act 1 Prelude, new to the orchestra and new to most of us probably. The strings sounded wonderful. Then came the Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra with a dazzling run around the keyboard, well, up and down, well mostly down, from Clemens Leske, driving himself into a lather of sweat. The luscious softness of the Prelude and the razzle dazzle of the Burleske (and Hans von Bulow is not one to disagree with) only made what was to come even more shocking.

Nothing prepared me, no Rattle, Solti, Abbado, Barbarolli, none of them warned me. After a breathholding silence, Ashkenazy motionless at the platform, the opening trumpet call came, explosive and quite horrifying, leading not a funeral march but a march of death. This was not a look at death survived and, while still inevitable, now delayed, this was immediate, and brutal in its force, and this was, for me, death, in the present. I was overwhelmed and brought to tears. Others may have found it unsubtle, I don't know, or care. Sometimes, in fact mostly, it's the collective that excites me, when minds and senses are joined by the performance. This was a starkly individual experience where I was no longer with anybody but alone with this thing I was hearing, very alone.

I can't remember a similar orchestral experience since I first heard the Siegfried Funeral March in a Sir Charles Mackerras Gotterdammerung, (and I'm not trying to compare the works or the subjects at all) and that's a long time ago. I remember where I sat that night, and the same for last Friday.

I've only been talking about the first movement. The second was as violent, the march of death never far away, and the final expansion of the chorale into the premonition of triumph was like a ray of heaven's light, before the return of disorder and a fade into uncertainty.

It was if a bright light was being shone on the composition, everything exposed, brilliant clarity from all the sections, the dynamics essentially loud and louder, and relentless in the heavy downbeat and momentum. I was thinking how it sat as an interpretation, and could only come up with it being Australian, as silly as that may sound, overexposed and the better for it. I thought about a play off, all the greats doing it, a Mahler 5 Play-Off, and how this would sound. I wouldn't, and didn't, want any other. This was ours.

We had, in retrospect, reached the climax of the night. While the tension wasn't exactly broken, it seemed the overall shape and forward drive slipped slightly. Perhaps it was inevitable and perhaps there was an explanation. The Scherzo was less true carefree Landler and rather more a forced and exaggerated contrivance, and that is no criticism, it was again distinctly raw, a swagger more than a waltz, again under bright lights. I feel sorry for the Adagietto. Such overexposure. The lightness and shimmer of the strings we heard in the earlier Strauss had long gone, and a heaviness had settled over them. Love was hard to hear. The final Rondo came and went, but what had been anticipated so brilliantly wasn't quite realised, or were expectations exaggerated. Not that it wasn't good; it just wasn't like it had been.

Nonetheless, it was one of the most haunting and memorable nights I've had with the orchestra and I clanked my shoes like the old days, wondering what happened or if I'd just depleted myself too early. The first section alone, those first two movements, did me in.

I'm now booking an extra ticket for Das Lied von Der Erde.

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