Mahler's late symphonies are such monolithic, encapsulating works that they make the question of programming very difficult – what other works can hope to stand alongside them and not be either swept away or mere distractions from them? On offering Mahler’s Symphony no. 9, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Edo de Waart opted to fill out the programme with Mozart’s evergreen Violin Concerto no. 4. This performance was dedicated to their recently deceased Conductor Laureate Franz-Paul Decker – Mahler was a particular speciality of his when he was at the orchestra’s helm. It is a pleasure to report that the Maestro’s memory was done great honour on this occasion.

Edo de Waart © Edo de Waart
Edo de Waart
© Edo de Waart

Simone Lamsma was our soloist in the Mozart, with tone a little on the small side but not inappropriately so, given the reduced orchestra accompanying her. It is a very pretty sound and she knows her way expertly around a Mozartian phrase. She is able to integrate passagework into the said phrasing without it sounding like meaningless note-spinning. The gutsiest playing was in the cadenzas, which seemed to hark forward to an era beyond Mozart’s death. The slow movement had her fining down her tone to the most delicate silvery sliver of sound – very lovely indeed. She also skipped through the dancelike finale most pleasingly. The orchestra struck me as something like a well-oiled machine here; every note, every phrase perfectly in place but lacking a certain spirit or individuality. If anything, I felt that de Waart’s reading of the piece was too efficient, too safe – there is more fun and indeed danger in Mozart’s music than was evident here. I wouldn’t demand period instrument-style eccentricities but the final impression, Lamsma’s phrasing aside, was a little bland.

Though it would not be possible to plumb every emotional depth of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, the orchestra and de Waart felt much more emotionally more tuned-in here than in the preceding Mozart. Composed following the twin tragedies of his daughter’s death and his own diagnosis with fatal heart disease, Mahler is seen by many commentators to be saying farewell to the world in this work, conscious of his own mortality. While this conductor is clearly not one to really expose musical excesses in music, in the case of this Mahler the whole was so beautifully conceived that it seemed less a case of playing it safe and more a detailed and valid interpretation of the work. The movements were each individually well delineated with their own very different spirit.

Unusually, Mahler places his slow movements first and last in this symphony. The first opens with a short motif that Leonard Bernstein interpreted as Mahler’s irregular heartbeat. It follows a winding course that can sound disconnected in less capable hands but was thankfully conducted with great cohesion by de Waart. This was not the most emotionally fraught rendition of this movement but effective in its own right, the nostalgic ending with its repeating two-note motif more reflective than heart-rending. The fragmentary flute solos were exquisitely shaped and the horn calls gloriously secure. Mahler’s discords were given their own due weight, but the enduring impression was not one of death or trauma but rather a generosity of spirit which made one sure that not all was lost.

The Ländler beginning of the second movement began most genially and indeed amusingly. This dance theme alternates with a waltz theme that gets progressively more demented and vicious as the movement goes on. I have heard more manic performances of this movement where the music threatens to escape control completely. Here things weren’t quite so wild but the final mischievous restating of the Ländler was slyly understated and wittily put across. More savage was the ensuing Rondo-Burleske movement, wild counterpoint underpinned by absolute rhythmic surety. Again, while the majority of the movement was suitably terrifying one felt more reassured than usual here by the momentary returns to calm.

It was in the final Adagio that de Waart’s interpretation really came into its own. The whole movement had a nobility that was all the more moving for its relative restraint. The strings-only opening began warmly and this warmth only deepened as the harmonies developed. The richness of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s strings at this point was utterly bewitching. Perhaps the odd brass “bubble” intruded through the texture but other than that this was as perfect as I have ever heard orchestral playing. The final few minutes had playing of the most concentrated intensity, the string phrasing seeming to hang suspended in their almost-silence.

To return to my initial questions about the effectiveness of the programming, the torrents of emotion inherent in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 9 couldn’t help but make the Mozart seem lightweight by comparison, a problem that the performance here did little to alleviate. Edo de Waart evidently mentioned in an interview that he usually programmes the Symphony no. 9 without any coupling and, pleasing as Lamsma was in the Mozart, it may have been more effective to do so here. Nevertheless, the impression left by the closing moments of the Mahler and the silence that followed will remain in the memory of this reviewer for some time to come.