“Europe’s answer to the ACO” was how composer Brett Dean described the Mahler Chamber Orchestra before its first concert in Sydney. Despite the similarity in names, the two are very different ensembles. The visiting orchestra is much larger – the string section alone had 33 players (10-8-6-6-3) – and as a consequence their music-making does not have the intimacy of the celebrated Australian orchestra. But in spite of these obvious differences, the two groups are indeed comparable in the calibre of their musicianship. Under Daniel Harding’s capable direction, the MCO delivered a performance that started well and got steadily better, ending with an encore which was stunningly good. This additional item, the slow movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, was an unusual choice, but acted as a trailer for their second program, in which the full symphony is to feature. Any listeners of discrimination will surely have hurried to secure tickets for the follow-up concert.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra © Holger Talinski
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
© Holger Talinski

The first program opened with Dean’s Testament, a response to Beethoven’s famous letter written from the town of Heiligenstadt in 1802, in which he laments his encroaching deafness. Dean came up with several ingenious devices to suggest Beethoven’s predicament. At the start the string players used bows without rosin and the wind players blew air through their instruments, lending the sound a ghostly quality. Later, a persistent high F sharp cut glassily though the texture, surely a nod to a similar feature in String Quartet no. 1 by Smetana, another deaf composer who thus represented the tinnitus that afflicted him. The orchestra played with gusto, with the front-desk string solos particularly excellent. It was interesting to note the non-standard layout of the orchestral strings: fanning from the left were first violins, cellos (with basses taking up station behind them on the left), violas and on the right, where the cellos more typically are, were the second violins. The brass and winds were conventionally arranged, with the timpanist seated high at the back. There were several passages where the antiphony between the first and second violins was made more visually vivid by this arrangement, although at times the second violin tone seemed a little compromised because the instruments were inclined away from the audience.

Christian Tetzlaff (whose profile shot was amusingly reversed in the program) was the unshowy, accomplished soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto. During the long opening orchestral tutti, he remained almost motionless, his eyes closed, clearly absorbed in the music. His rendition was meditative and deeply personal, although I was not always able to fathom the reasons behind his dynamic choices, particularly at the soft end of the spectrum. For my taste the soloist could have played out a bit more in the opening of the second movement, and again during the G minor episode in the finale, although the main rondo theme was delivered with appropriate gusto. In the first movement, Tetzlaff chose to adapt the cadenza that Beethoven provided when he transcribed the work for piano, a version in which the timpanist plays a significant role. I found myself sighing for the familiar Kreisler cadenza, especially during a banal fanfare passage (a reminder that not even Beethoven always got it right). Tetzlaff’s encore, the Largo from Bach’s Solo Sonata no. 3 in C, was affectingly simple.

The orchestra came fully into its own in the second half with Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony. The rolling opening theme, with its glorious cross-rhythms, launched an account in which impetus and sensitivity were held in a near-ideal balance. The brass playing was a particular revelation here: the trumpets and horns sounded now mellow, now heroic in the second movement, and the trombones were appropriately stentorian in the chorale in the fourth movement. The strings managed to make their spiccato sound resonant, and one could also note in places the influence of the HIP (historically informed performance) movement in the cleanliness and restraint of vibrato. However, the abiding impression was not of aseptic “correctness”, but of full-blooded music-making. Harding’s rapport with the musicians, the result of a fifteen-year association, was obvious in their responsiveness to his direction. These same qualities of committed playing and beautifully nuanced phrasing were even more in evidence in their encore, which was simply magical.

****1