Marking Edo de Waart’s final concert as Musical Director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, as he takes up the role of Conductor Laureate, this performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 in C minor “Resurrection” played to the maestro’s strengths wonderfully. As he had with the same composer’s Third Symphony in his first concert as Musical Director post back in 2016, he guided Mahler’s sprawling work through its peaks and valleys with unfailing concentration to a magnificent and transcendent conclusion. Luckily, the interpretation was matched throughout by the taut and insightful playing of the orchestra and capped off by glorious singing from both vocal soloists and chorus.

Edo de Waart © Jesse Willems
Edo de Waart
© Jesse Willems

Even from the incisive opening cello figures, it was clear we were in for an exciting evening. De Waart is not a hyper-emotional or extreme Mahler conductor but one whose consistent attention to detail yielded constant rewards. For example, the oft-recurring ascending theme in the strings was held back ever so slightly on each appearance, sweetly hushed and with an apt sense of yearning. Overall, the movement had a suitably funereal feeling but with momentum never flagging and attention given to maintaining the cohesiveness of the movement’s disparate elements. It built up to great crashing climaxes but never descended into crudity or vulgarity. Mention should also be made of the particularly beautifully phrased cor anglais solos.

Following a short silence (though not the five minutes initially requested by the composer), de Waart offered a relatively genial take on the second movement, keeping the feeling of the dance throughout and savouring moments of delicacy. The brass in the Trio section brought some darker undertones to the otherwise beautifully sunny account. The third movement was quite a contrast, the endless flow of notes staring gaily but becoming more and more trenchant. This movement depicts St Anthony’s sermon to the fish and one felt his increasing desperation and restlessness as the movement went on. De Waart once again showed a formidable grasp of the musical structure so that the occasional outbursts of violence made thematic sense and a strong feeling of tension led up to the final cry of despair.

Anna Larsson plumbed contralto depths in her soulful and intense account of the moving Urlicht. She had a deep sense of connection with the text and was particularly moving as the voice lightened in the final ascending phrases. Spontaneity in the multiple mood changes and interruptions (the sudden clanging of the bells or the emergence of the atmospheric off-stage band) of the final movement made the music come alive in a way that it has the potential to but rarely does. The orchestra continued to excel itself with some particularly lovely horn playing at the beginning of the movement accompanied by ethereal harp. The flute responses to the offstage band were similarly immaculately phrased. As for the singing, Larsson brought the same intensity to her final lines and Lauren Snouffer, with less to do in the soprano part, made the absolute most of what she had, soaring over orchestra and chorus with unfailingly gorgeous tone. The combined choirs were wonderful too; the Auckland Choral and Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir covered a range of dynamics with aplomb from the lovely hushed opening phrases to the awe-inspiring final climax. The final moments were transcendent; a rousing close to de Waart’s tenure.

*****