An emotional event took place in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House last Saturday. The resident ensemble, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, performed there for the last time before a two-year, long overdue renovation, which will see improvements in the hall's acoustics, stage and backstage areas. Effectively, a complete refurbishment of this much-loved hall is about to commence.

Simone Young © Klaus Lefebvre
Simone Young
© Klaus Lefebvre

The programme formed the second segment of the “Visions of Vienna” series, planned over a span of three years, curated and conducted by Simone Young. The introduction of lesser-known Romantic masterworks is obviously an important feature of this cycle; in this concert, Das klagende Lied by Gustav Mahler was – at least, in the performed format – premiered to Sydney audiences.

The germination of Mahler’s first orchestral composition makes for fascinating reading. Rejection by such luminaries as Johannes Brahms, Eduard Hanslick and Franz Liszt made young Mahler repeatedly rewrite his massive cantata and cut its original three movements to two. By reinstalling the first movement (Waldmärchen) but using later, revised versions of the other two, Young sided neither with the “Urfassung” (original), nor the “Fassung letzter Hand” (the last authoritative version) but presented a hybrid version. Given the temporal distance of almost ten years between the two versions, taking sides may have been preferable. This resulted in some odd (although unavoidable) decisions, for example, when instead of the original score’s instruction of six harps and the revised version’s two harps, three harps were heard here.

Were the older colleagues, Brahms and Liszt et al, too harsh in their judgment? Das klagende Lied is a supremely ambitious and assuredly composed work for someone writing it well before his twentieth birthday. It may be regarded as a juvenile composition; however, by then, Mahler inescapably belonged to “the prison of the gifted” (in Leonard Cohen’s apt words). His compositional powers increased in the following years, leading to the more concise, yet more dramatic First Symphony (written in the same decade).

Despite the orchestra performing with smaller forces and the number of singers being reduced from eleven to four due to Mahler’s revisions, there were still well over a hundred performers on stage. The story of the cantata is dark and brutal, as it is not uncommon in the German tales of the Grimm brothers from which it originates. It is told by four soloists and the chorus take turns without any obvious logic (oddly, the bass-baritone Andrew Collis’ part finished completely after the first movement).

The solo singers had fewer opportunities to create extensive musical arches, as their individual segments often lasted only a few bars. Their delivery was nonetheless impressive. German mezzo Michaela Schuster, with warm tone colour, was fully in command, even in the softest parts of her role. The other three soloists were Australian: soprano Eleanor Lyons, tenor Steve Davislim and Andrew Collis. The latter delivered his lines with feeling but with a larger vibrato than the others. Davislim’s lyrical tenor sounded effortlessly tender, while the beauty of Lyons’ soaring voice impressed with every one of her entries.

Clearly, diction of the text is of great importance with such a dramatic narrative. Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, ably prepared by their music director, Brett Weymark, were excellent both in their delivery of the text and of Mahler’s complex choral lines. I could understand their German pronunciation often more easily than that of the of the soloists, although this may be due to the acoustic problems of the hall (about to be rectified).

The SSO played with its customary assured technique and fine resonance to its conductor’s direction. They were led with the confidence and stylistic finesse that has long been Young’s trademark, particularly in late German Romantic orchestral repertoire. The echoes of this suitable grand farewell will resonate in this hall until its doors are opened by the workers of the refurbishment. In the memories of performers and their audience, probably even longer.

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