The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is the resident orchestra in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House; therefore, it is rather unusual for them to present major concerts anywhere else in town. Yet, this is what happened last weekend, when the SSO performed Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony no. 2 in C minor in the Sydney Town Hall, the very same venue where this work received its first Australian performance in 1950 (more than half a century after its première in Berlin), played then by the same orchestra and conducted by none other than Otto Klemperer. Since the opening of the Opera House (1973) very few concerts have been organised in the Town Hall, although the SSO has performed the Second Symphony there on at least one other memorable occasion in the early 1990s, under the direction of Stuart Challender, who died soon after, at a tragically young age.

The Sydney Symphony with David Robertson © Keith Saunders
The Sydney Symphony with David Robertson
© Keith Saunders

The Sydney Town Hall has thus a respectable history of Mahler performances. The building itself possesses a certain ‘olde world’ charm, with the back wall of the stage attractively covered by the pipes of the hall’s organ – an indispensable instrument to any performance of the Second Symphony. On the downside, the soft but the constant whirr of the air-conditioning system made it difficult to fully enjoy the intimate moments of the symphony, and visibility in the stalls is limited, due to the combination of a flat floor, on which the audience is seated, facing a rather high stage.

David Robertson, chief conductor of the SSO, set a vigorous pace at the beginning of the first movement with a most theatrical soliloquy from the cellos and basses. This extensive unison is ‘wild, powerful’ according to the instruction in the score and its menacing growls are never too far away over the course of the movement; they even underline the woodwinds’ lyrical theme or the horns’ Dies irae motif. The orchestra was on splendid form with fine instrumental solos and dramatic contrasts, both in dynamics and in tone colour. It was therefore surprising that various instrument groups interpreted Robertson’s always clear direction differently at times, which caused minor but recurring glitches in the ensemble. I can only explain this problem (most unusual with this highly experienced orchestra) by the pleasant but idiosyncratic acoustics of the hall. There can be a significant difference in time between where an orchestral musician sees the beat and where he or she hears it (from colleagues playing elsewhere in the hall), and in a relatively unfamiliar hall certain adjustments have to be made. Things improved considerably later and, for example, the strings’ exposed melody in the middle of the movement, played only by the back desks of each section, sounded in perfect unity.

The contrast is so stark between the first movement’s death march and the tranquil Gemütlichkeit of the following movement that the composer actually prescribed a five minute pause between them; an instruction almost rarely respected verbatim, but one that can be effective even in a shorter form if the performers’ collective, solemn body language makes it clear that this is not the time to cough or make noise with the lolly wrappers.

The second movement introduces an altogether different side of Mahler’s vision: his affection for the leisurely Viennese Ländler, brimming with nostalgia and yearning – a character well caught by the musicians on stage. On its later return, the same dance was splendidly balanced by the cellos’ wistful countermelody.

The third movement’s dreamy theme eventually grew into a shattering climax, confidently supported by the brass section, setting the scene for the serene fourth movement. Mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup delivered the longing poetry of the short but vitally important “Urlicht” movement with a warm tone and clear diction.

The tumultuous finale presented the off-stage flute, brass and percussion players from all corners, reminiscent of a well-engineered 5.1 surround sound. It all came to a standstill with the choir’s hardly audible entrance on “Aufersteh’n”, one of the most poignant moments of the concert. The Sydney Philharmonia Choirs excelled here and later, even if their collective sound could not quite cope with the full might of the orchestral tutti in the climactic moments. On their left stood soprano, Kiandra Howarth; her attractive voice (particularly at “O glaube”) was slightly smothered by the orchestra, with the positioning of the two soloists in the organ gallery behind the orchestra less than ideal and possibly the root of balance problems.

The “Resurrection” Symphony, as it is often referred, enjoys an almost cult status, recognised as one of the few orchestral works of the 19th century that, despite its tormenting eschatological program, can offer a transcendental experience to its audience. That was certainly the case on this occasion. As if spellbound, the audience followed Mahler’s majestic arch towards redemption with tense concentration and responded to the combined work of conductor, soloists, choir and orchestra with thunderous applause.

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