What a way to welcome a new Musical Director! The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra chose Mahler's monumental Third Symphony as their choice of work for renowned conductor Edo de Waart's first concert in his new position. By some distance the longest symphony in the standard orchestral repertoire (usually lasting over 90 minutes), Mahler's masterwork stretches over six movements, performed here without interval, and demands an alto soloist, women's chorus and boys' chorus as well as enormous orchestral forces. De Waart controlled these vast forces superbly, taking the audience on a journey of genuinely cosmic proportions.

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

The mammoth first movement can easily sound sprawling and disconnected; not so on this occasion where each successive musical thought was well-integrated with the previous. In fact, the movement felt nowhere near its great length thanks to the naturalness of de Waart’s transitions and his flowing tempi. It was clear from the outset that de Waart doesn't subscribe to the hyper-emotionalised school of Mahler conducting. In the most extremely dramatic sections, his conception can feel a little safe; not quite bringing out the full brutality at the most aggressive moments. The ironic march sections too sounded less threatening than in some other performances but the more bucolic parts were superbly evocative. On the other hand, the level of detail to his conception was consistently remarkable, each upward rush of the lower strings subtly variegated from the last. The orchestra took to this score superbly, the brass particularly incisive and accurate. Orchestral soloists impressed throughout too, concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s rather dispassionate solo moments making for an intriguing combination with the more overtly expressive wind. As in most performances, the principal trombone (Michael Kirgan) was a true hero; delivering his solos with an almost painful degree of intensity.

De Waart and the orchestra were light and graceful in the opening of the second movement minuet, giving an ideal amount of breathing space for the lovely oboe variations. Stormier episodes weren’t shortchanged either; a good contrast was made between the tempestuous and the predominant gentle, breezy moods. The quirky Scherzo was given its full measure of humour, with a magical mood change from playful to introspective with the appearance of the offstage flugelhorn. Each reprise of the scherzo was repeatedly interrupted by the flugelhorn but returning each time more boisterous than the last. Still, the control was more evident than I might have liked – I have heard more welcomely spontaneous account of this movement.

The performance found a new sense of gravity for the sparsely orchestrated fourth movement, with Charlotte Hellekant magnificent in the Nietzschean "O Mensch" solo. Her warm and rich alto voice gave an Erda-like vibe to this movement and she interpreted the text with the skill of a Lieder singer. It felt a pity that Mahler didn’t give her more to sing. Sadly the horns, so exemplary thus far, suffered some split notes and loss of ensemble in their very exposed parts in this movement, affecting the still atmosphere somewhat. The inbuilt contrast with the cheerful fifth movement, "Es sungen drei Engel", came off well with the contribution of the women of Auckland Choral and the Auckland Boys Choir, not unfailingly accurate but always enthusiastic with their jubilant 'bimms and 'bamms.

The extraordinary final slow movement was the absolute highlight, a fitting climax to everything that had come before. The strings were totally eloquent in the almost agonisingly noble melodic line, each restatement seeming to grow in expressiveness. The horns too made up for earlier lapses here with unerring purity but never excessive passion. De Waart commanded the necessary restraint to make this final movement almost unbearably moving right up the final majestic conclusion with its repeated D major chords, barring only a couple of uncharacteristically forced tempi changes.

As the applause started up, streamers rained out from strategically placed audience members on both sides of the circle seating above the stage, giving de Waart’s welcome an extra celebratory feeling. And well should the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra celebrate too, if this concert is any indication of the quality of music-making to come.