Around the time Mahler was working on his Fourth Symphony, he reported to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner that he had been studying Schubert’s music. His impressions were mixed: he acknowledged that “Schubert’s melody, like Beethoven’s and Wagner’s, is eternal.” However, Mahler criticised his Viennese forebear when it came to how these ideas were worked out in his instrumental works: “no elaboration, no artistically finished development of his original idea!” For Mahler, “each repetition is already a lie. A work of art must evolve perpetually, like life.”

Umberto Clerici
© Jay Patel

And yet, despite these strictures, the Fourth Symphony is where Mahler draws closest to Schubert. Pairing these two composers thus made for excellent programming on the part of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The progression from songs in the first half to the symphony after the interval mimicked the way in which both Schubert and Mahler allowed song-like procedures to infuse their instrumental writing. In the case of the Fourth, this is unmissable, with the final movement an adaptation of a song, Das himmlische Leben (The heavenly life), which Mahler had written some years earlier.

Since Schubert’s Lieder are for voice and piano, orchestrations of four of his most beloved songs by Offenbach, Webern and Reger were used. In place of the beautiful intimacy of the original versions, one got to enjoy the greater sonic possibilities enabled by the orchestra, making these extremely familiar works sound almost new. In Ständchen, for instance, Offenbach allowed the woodwind to echo the singer in the second verse – a not unwelcome novelty.

The gem of the set was Webern’s re-imagining of Du bist die Ruh', which created a magical halo of sound around the singer from the start. Each verse had a different colour: first strings, second woodwind, and then both together in the third. Umberto Clerici, standing in for overseas principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, controlled the sound of the orchestra well, allowing Jacqueline Porter’s unfussy delivery to come through with scarcely more effort than would have been the case in the original. This was a blessing, as attempting to compensate for the bigger space by sheer volume of tone would have been ruinous.

In Sydney Town Hall, where the orchestra is temporarily relocated while the Opera House Concert Hall is being refurbished, the stalls are below stage height and unraked. I mention this, since it might explain why the weaving string figuration in Reger’s arrangement of Gretchen am Spinnrade sounded a little blurred, even at a comparatively slow tempo. More successful was the same composer’s version of Nacht und Träume, which turned the slow oscillations of the piano into a throbbing tone poem, one which recalled the lovers’ hymn to the night in Tristan und Isolde.

After the understated ending to the first half, the sleigh bells at the start of the symphony promised an uptick in energy. The first movement, one of Mahler’s most “classical” structures, started well with a coaxing rendition of the first theme. However, the development section did not convince: the seams showed, and I missed the sense of architecture which would have made the return of the opening theme feel like a welcome release from a nightmare, instead of just odd. The energy of the transition and the fulsome second theme were more persuasive, and Clerici handled the many tempo changes skilfully.

The second movement mostly worked, aside from a few moments where concertmaster Andrew Haveron, playing his scordatura violin to represent the devil, was swallowed in the texture. There were lovely spot colours from the woodwinds (notable were the clarinets with their bell-ends raised). It was a little disconcerting to see Clerici bouncing on the soles of his feet at the start of the D major section: this was doubtless intended to encourage the clarinet, which starts with a jaunty motif, but it clashed with the overall calm limpidity of this passage.

It was in the third movement that things really blossomed: the opening had a feeling of interiority that was magical. Later climaxes were well crafted, and the startling E major outburst near the end was positively thrilling. As the music subsided, one could see Porter, now on a raised platform behind the strings, ready to begin the fourth movement. Blending her into the ensemble was an excellent choice: no distracting entrances, nor (for the singer) the necessity of sitting around at the front of the stage for 45 minutes before singing. Again, Clerici handled the balance issue sensitively, encouraging the orchestra to play down so Porter could relate the child’s vision of heaven, which she did with aplomb. Mahler’s Fourth is a hard nut to crack, precisely because of its seeming accessibility, and even if this performance didn’t fully solve its problems, there was still lots to enjoy on the way.