Auckland is a good place to be for Mahler lovers at the moment. Following hard on the heels of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s Seventh Symphony, the Auckland Philharmonia brought their interpretation of his Fifth to the same hall. Despite being in five movements, Mahler also designated the work as being in three parts; the first and second movements making up Part One, the long third movement making up Part Two and the fourth and fifth movements making up Part Three. Italian composer Alfredo Casella summed up Mahler’s symphonies as “constant variety, superhuman imagination ... in which an iron hand unites and fuses the apparently most disparate melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic elements”, but throughout this performance conductor Eckehard Stier’s hand was mostly more velvet than iron and the disparate elements were not always as well connected as they could have been, although as the end of the work approached, everything suddenly fell very much into place.

Eckehard Stier
Eckehard Stier

The Auckland Philharmonia’s characteristically lean string sound is perhaps not ideally suited to famous fourth-movement Adagietto for strings and harp. However, I admired Stier’s refusal to give in to sentimental schmaltz in his relatively straightforward view of this movement. Intended as a hymn of love to his wife Alma, too often this movement degenerates into a lush but directionless dirge (see Karajan’s commercial recording), but here Stier’s firm hand on the tiller kept things focused and maintained admirable cohesion.

A similar, slightly restrained mood permeated much of the symphony. While this did work beautifully in the Adagietto and the more introspective sections of the first movement, I felt that the second movement lacked some of the necessary violence, though beautifully played. Its climax too was somewhat too withdrawn to make its full impact. On the other hand, Stier was at his finest when shaping the dance elements in the third movement; he exquisitely teased out little elements of rubato in shaping the Ländler and waltz rhythms. All this movement lacked was a little more unity; something to make clear the interrelationships between the different phases. Here it was more a case of a series of impeccably sculpted but slightly disconnected moments.

However, as the last movement began, suddenly all restraint was put aside and Stier and the orchestra gave an absolutely barnstorming account of the remainder of the work. All tight propulsion, we were swept to most exciting and joyful climax which for once didn’t seem out of place with the rather different emotional extremes of the rest of the work. This concert marked the final performance of Concertmaster Emeritus Brecon Carter, a fact enthusiastically appreciated by the audience, and what a way it was for him to go out, with the strings hurtling to such a magnificent pinnacle.

This concert contained some of the most accurate, thrilling brass playing I have heard, with nary a flub from anyone. Brent Grapes brought just the right rhythmic verve to the trumpet fanfare opening the symphony, making the audience feel the connection to the similar rhythmic motif opening Beethoven’s Fifth. I cannot wait to hear him take on the Arutiunian Trumpet Concerto next year. Nicola Baker was magnificent in her obbligato horn turns underpinning the third movement; the memory of her melting tone will stick in my mind for a long while to come. I also cannot praise the woodwind section highly enough.

The brass was also on majestic form in the first half of the programme: Messiaen’s L’Ascension, with its series of brass chorales. It was an interesting idea to programme Messiaen’s first major orchestral work with Mahler’s mature masterpiece, and a great choice considering the Auckland Philharmonia’s track record with 20th-century music. Composed in the early 1930s, L’Ascension is divided into four movements in varying moods. Messiaen described it as a “meditation for orchestra” and it is clearly rooted in his deep religious faith. Though a relatively early work, Messiaen’s trademark harmonic language is already very much in evidence, his dissonances never afraid to resolve into a major triad.

Stier is an accomplished Stravinskian (next year he will conduct The Rake’s Progress and The Rite of Spring with this orchestra) and he brought a very Stravinsky-ish gutsiness to the rhythms in the third movement, which was well contrasted with the sinuous melodies of the second. When, in the last movement, the strings reflect on the first movement’s brass chorales, the aforementioned lean sound of the Auckland Philharmonia was absolutely ideal. As the music ascended in exquisite dissonances, the orchestra’s ever more radiant performance brought forth images of heaven until it reached its final apotheosis. A spectacular accomplishment – we need more Messiaen from this orchestra!