Perhaps it was the prospect of a brand new composition or the idea of an evening of two full symphonies that put people off, but the Auckland Town Hall was very sparsely attended indeed for the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s ‘Voices of Youth’ concert, featuring works based on texts written from children’s perspectives. This was a shame, because those absent missed out on a beautifully shaped rendition of Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 and an interesting new piece by New Zealand composer Ross Harris. <--break--!>This was the world première of Harris’s brand new Symphony No. 5 which showcased Australian mezzo Sally-Anne Russell in vocal settings of poetry by Hungarian-New Zealander poet Panni Palasti. These are based on Palasti’s harrowing wartime experiences as a child in Budapest in 1944. Harris has a long history of association with the Auckland Philharmonia; they have premièred all of his previous symphonies as well as his memorable Cello Concerto last year.

Eckerhard Stier © Dieter Wuschanski
Eckerhard Stier
© Dieter Wuschanski

Harris’s work is bookended by two adagio movements with two scherzi and three vocal movements in between. The chromatic woodwind solos of the opening adagio could have been born straight out of Wagner’s Tristan Prelude, except filtered through a late 20th century harmonic prism. As the first scherzo opened one was suddenly reminded of the lighter Shostakovich, brim full of energy and wit (despite the composer’s suggestion that his scherzi aren’t really funny). Everywhere the music seemed ready to break out into a march or dance but was not quite able to. If all of this makes the piece sound derivative, this is not quite the case; more that the work was something of a stylistic mish-mash. Harris is an effective musical craftsman and a fantastic orchestrator, but it never really cohered as a whole and seemed rather more a selection of interesting but unrelated sections. Probably the most effective parts were the claustrophobic vocal movements. With rather spare accompaniment (dominated by harp), the rich tones of Sally-Anne Russell made quite an impact, even if her lines were not conventionally melodic. She dug right into Panati’s text about firing squads and hiding in bunkers – some pretty wrenching stuff indeed. It was wonderful to see the poet herself on stage quite overcome with emotion at the end of the piece.

The Harris was paired with Mahler’s most genial work, the ebullient Symphony No. 4. Conductor Eckehard Stier’s previous outings with Mahler in Auckland have mostly been pretty successful, but this Fourth reached the highest standard of those that I have heard. Tempi were generally on the quicker side in the first two movements with Stier providing a firm hand on the tiller. There was no randomness in the ebb and flow of tempi; in this work Stier has the gift of making every minutely controlled mannerism seem natural and spontaneous with just that touch of Viennese gemütlichkeit. Notable was the contrast between the more relaxed exposition of the first movement and its spikier, more piquant development. The weird solo violin was very prominent in the second movement, which again was marked by the seamless flowing together of its contrasting sections.

The third movement was languorously drawn out but without any resulting slackness of tension. Stier’s emphasis here was always on the singing line – a sort of endless melodic flowering that was simply ravishing. The last movement started off very quickly; indeed, there was something slightly savage about the opening. Not even this most amiable of Mahler's works is entirely without darkness, after all. However, Stier showed an amazing ability to mold tempi and the more rigidly rhythmic sections seemed to just melt into those more lyrical moments. Soloist Madeleine Pierard (fresh from her wonderful Anne Trulove in The Rake’s Progress) was perfectly radiant in the last movement's vision of heaven. The crucial ‘Sankt Ursula’ phrase soared effortlessly. The words could perhaps have been a little more pointed, but then again, Pierard’s simplicity of utterance (after all, would a child's thoughts not be so?) was a very fitting end to Stier’s conception of the work.

The Auckland Philharmonia played assuredly throughout both works, negotiating the demands of the Harris as if they’d been playing the work their whole lives. The strings produced a wonderful ghostly effect at its close. Most memorable in the Mahler were the confidently lyrical oboe solos of Bede Hanley and the amazingly secure French horns. The strings were wonderfully expressive in the long slow movement, lacking only that last bit of warm resonance. As always, the orchestra specialise in lucidity of texture, perfectly embodying the “clarity, economy and transparency” that Mahler scholar Henry-Louis de La Grange thought necessary in performances of this symphony. In short, a magnificent Mahler Fourth Symphony and a valuable addition to the repertoire in the form of Ross Harris’s Fifth.