For the second of their two Sydney programs, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra pretty much replicated the layout of the first: a short modernist work, a concerto featuring a string instrument, and, in the second half, a big romantic symphony. The symmetries even extended to the encores: Alisa Weilerstein followed Christian Tetzlaff’s lead in playing an excerpt from Bach’s solo works, while in their turn the orchestra treated us to a movement from Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, which had been performed complete the previous night (just as back then we were given a foretaste of Dvořák’s New World Symphony).

Mahler Chamber Orchestra © Deniz Saylan 2011
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
© Deniz Saylan 2011

If anything, I found the second concert even more enjoyable than the first. The Sonata for Strings by Hans Werner Henze which opened the concert dates from 1957–8, although the composer died only last year. Although the piece itself wasn’t much to my taste, the excellence of the playing was indisputable. The strings were tight and driven, both in the intense sections and the more ethereal meditations. Whenever solo spot colours were called for, the individual players all excelled.

However, the performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1 took things to another level entirely. I had had the good fortune to hear Alisa Weilerstein play this same work with the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra back in 2011, and was bowled over by it/her. Thankfully, this performance was in no way a let-down. From the first gritty figure, Weilerstein delivered a propulsive, utterly convincing account. Her level of involvement was such that at times she was hidden behind a curtain of hair, but there was no gainsaying her consummate technical mastery. Besides the obvious virtuosity, there were moments of gorgeous lyrical playing, and her hold over the audience was best illustrated by the utter stillness during the third movement, a lengthy and not always showy solo cadenza. The orchestra matched the soloist when needed, but at other times (especially in the second movement) were content to provide a discreet backdrop for her. As an encore, she played the two Bourées from Bach’s Suite no. 3 in C, which were achingly beautiful.

During the Dvořák New World Symphony, I found myself frequently marvelling at the distinctive sound of the orchestra. This must partly be due to the fact some players use period instruments. Most obviously retro were the wooden flutes, which were less sonorous than their metallic counterparts, but arguably sweeter in tone. The wooden piccolo’s rounded and unshrill tone colour was particularly delightful. The trumpets, too, looked and sounded different. Although I am not and never have been a brass player, the valves appeared to be more offset from the centre tube than they are on contemporary instruments, and they certainly produced a warmer, less piercing sound.

But period instruments are not the sole explanation for this orchestra’s individual sound. More important is the fact that the group comprises intelligent musicians who have long played together. Of course many orchestras could claim as much. What distinguishes the MCO players is the sensitivity of their listening and the imagination of their response. One theme in the second movement of the symphony played by flute, oboe and clarinet in unison was so perfectly blended that it sounded like the timbre of a single, brand new instrument. Other memorable moments include the perfectly calibrated filtering out of the strings in the second movement, leaving just the front desks playing, and the way in which all the players collaborated to create a truly homogenous forte sound in the first movement. The famous cor anglais solo was rendered beautifully, and the horns were a delight any time they were given thematic material. Daniel Harding, who conducted the symphony without a score, marshalled the players well, but one felt that this most satisfying performance had been arrived at through dialogue and not dictatorial fiat.

At the beginning of the week, I was secretly sceptical that a group of 54 musicians really deserved to be called a “chamber” orchestra. However, having observed them over two nights, I can withdraw my objections: the players play as if they were simultaneously indispensable and yet utterly dependent on each other, which is the hallmark of good chamber musicians.

*****