This performance promised to be a welcome reunion of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Edo de Waart with Mahler, after their thrilling Symphony No. 3 earlier in the season. Unfortunately, this promise was not quite fulfilled in the composer's next work, with de Waart's interpretation of the Fourth Symphony sounding rather limp and shapeless in comparison. The concert was actually titled “Four Last Songs” despite the relative brevity of this cycle when compared to the Mahler that followed, but it was these songs that impressed far more with the radiant Christiane Libor on hand.

Christiane Libor © Etude Arts
Christiane Libor
© Etude Arts
The songs were performed in their published order, starting with Frühling. Libor has an idiomatic grasp of the Straussian idiom, this first song sounding all the world like one long continuous phrase, even the difficult low passages ideally projected. Hers is a large voice (she counts Isolde and Senta in Der fliegende Hollander amongst her stage roles) but was never unwieldy in tackling Strauss's melismatic melodic lines. This vocal amplitude paid dividends as she soared to a magnificent pinnacle at the end of Beim Schlafengehen, filling the hall with immense glowing tone on the word “tausendfach”. As well as producing a consistently glorious tone, Libor showed a keen understanding of and engagement with the text. This made Im Abendrot the emotional highpoint of the cycle, Libor's unusually clear diction rendering the final phrase “ist dies etwa der Tod?” almost unbearingly poignant.

On the podium, Edo de Waart unfolded the songs at a leisurely pace, allowing the audience to luxuriate both in Libor's voice and the lustrous depth of the orchestral playing. They made a most sensitive accompanist to their soprano in quieter moments, coaxing the orchestra to a lovely autumnal hush in September but never skimped on volume when required, unleashing a great orchestral torrent of sound in the final song. Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen was superbly poised and lyrical in the serene violin solo in Beim Schlafengehen and the horns were on superbly glowing form in their prominent parts throughout.

It was an interesting idea to have this Isolde-sized voice take on the solo part in Mahler's evergreen Symphony No. 4, usually the province of lighter voices. I'm not sure it quite worked, even though Libor once again pointed the words with great attention. Nevertheless, this impeccably sung and well thought-out performance lacked something of the sense of childlike wonder that a more lyric soprano voice can bring to this magical movement. De Waart was at his most alert in this movement, uniting the disparate sections and little orchestral touches pointed deliciously.

Unfortunately, the tautness of the last movement was not felt in the rest of the symphony. Over the preceding three movements de Waart conducted as expansively as in the Strauss, though I feel Mahler demands a little more tension and sense of propulsion than de Waart provided on this occasion. Additionally, the essential sparkle and wit was missing in the first movement. This is among the sunniest of Mahler's works but it felt leaden here despite the expert playing of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Similarly, Friend Hein in the second movement was more ponderous than sinister,the macabre outer sections feeling directionless. The ländler-inspired trio sections were much more beautifully realised in their langurousness and tribute must be again paid to Leppänen who brought the right touch of folkiness to the solo violinist's 'out-of-tune' ruminations here. The strings moulded the lyrical phrases of the Poco adagio third movement with melting lyricism but again a sense of overall shape for this movement was missing, even as individual moments were indicated with obvious affection by the conductor. It was all undeniably exquisite as pure sound (especially in the cello's opening utterances) but it struggled to hold one's attention across the movement's full length. The build-up and unleashing of the great climax was undeniably impressive but not quite enough to rescue the performance.

This concert was held not in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's usual Auckland venue at the Town Hall, being performed instead in the ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre. This is not a happy change – while Christiane Libor had no problems being heard in the unfriendly acoustic, some orchestral details were harder to hear and the orchestra as a whole achieved a much less balanced sound than one normally hears in the Town Hall. I do not know what has prompted the change of venue, but the rather dead acoustic may have compounded the performance's problems. Libor's stunning Four Last Songs would undoubtedly be even more overwhelming in a more congenial acoustic.