New Zealand Strauss, Mahler: Christiane Libor (soprano), New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Conductor: Edo de Waart. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand. 6.8.2016. (PM)
Strauss – Four Last Songs
Mahler – Symphony No.4 in G Major
The first performance of a Mahler Symphony in New Zealand was given in 1958 by the then National Orchestra of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, eleven years after the orchestra’s formation. This was due to the initiative of the young, newly-appointed Resident Conductor of the orchestra, John Hopkins (1927-2013), who energetically promoted music which was then still new to this country, such as the Mahler and Sibelius symphonies, along with the work of more recent 20th century composers (including New Zealanders). It was a policy which helped push the orchestra towards enlarging its range and scope of repertoire as well as achieving hitherto unrealised standards of playing.
With Mahler, Hopkins started with the Fourth Symphony, at the time steadfastly weathering criticism by people in the Broadcasting management hierarchy concerning the programming of what one of them described to the young conductor as “this long, boring music”. The conductor’s undaunted response was to schedule the performance of several of the other symphonies, and win the audiences over to Mahler in the process! It took some time, but thanks to Hopkins’ efforts, as well as those of guest conductors Uri Segal (who performed and then recorded the Mahler Fourth with the orchestra in 1975 for EMI) and Michiyoshi Inoue (who directed a stunning Fifth Symphony with the orchestra during the late 1970s), we New Zealanders gradually became familiar with these works in concert, finding them, in the process, anything but “boring”!
The arrival, during the 1980s, of charismatic German conductor Franz-Paul Decker (an interpreter steeped in the Austro-German symphonic repertoire) as the Chief Conductor of the newly-renamed New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, gave this local “Mahler tradition” renewed focus. Decker, and after him the orchestra’s Music Directors James Judd and Pietari Inkinen between them directed performances of nearly all of the symphonies – and as for the renowned Eighth, the “Symphony of a Thousand”, firstly Roumanian conductor Erich Bergel in 1980, then German conductor Marcus Stenz in 1996, and, most recently, in 2010, none other than Vladimir Ashkenazy (as part of the Wellington International Arts Festival that year) were the conductors who did the honours.
Now, in Wellington, Edo de Waart, the newly-appointed Music Director of the NZSO, has in his first season with the orchestra, programmed two of the composer’s symphonies, and achieved with his players something rich and distinctive in the case of each of the performances (the Third and more recently the Fourth). Maestro de Waart in fact made his debut last year with the orchestra in a concert featuring the composer’s Ninth Symphony – one would have thought, something of a rigorous trial for a prospective Music Director of any ensemble – and seemed, to my ears, to pass the test with the proverbial flying colours. The appointment body who subsequently chose de Waart as the NZSO’s conductor must have thought so too!
To give readers an admittedly personalised idea of the impact made by the conductor’s work with the orchestra so far, here are links to my reviews of those performances with the NZSO of Mahler’s Third and Ninth Symphonies:
Reading them again after having so much water pass under the bridge, I’m struck by the extent to which I find myself wanting to say similar things about de Waart’s and the NZSO’s most recent Mahler outing – this was a performance of the Fourth which I thought deserved to be ranked alongside those two previous ones. First up in this latest concert, however, was what promised to be a particularly mellifluous coupling for the symphony, the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss, sung here by German soprano Christiane Libor.
A good friend of mine once told me he regarded this work as “music which was so overwhelmingly beautiful you would want to listen to it only on very special occasions”. Christiane Libor’s performances gave us what I would call some beautiful moments, especially in the third and fourth of the songs, where in places she was able to “float” her phrases to breath-catching effect. Earlier, such as throughout the first song, Frühling (Spring), her voice seemed to take its time to “settle”, with her vibrato a shade intrusive in places – admittedly, the music’s somewhat dogged and agitated character makes this particular song a tough nut to negotiate.
While the orchestral playing had a smooth, velvety richness, I thought the detailing a shade too loud and insistent throughout the first part of the second song, September, though things had, to my ears, found their ease in time for Christiane Libor’s lovely phrasing of, “langsam tut er die müdgewordnen Augen zu” (Languid, slow to the last, his weary eyelids close), and the solo horn’s beautiful concluding response.
Where I thought things came together beautifully was in the third song Beim Schlafengehen (Time to Sleep), the music’s deep-throated beginning rising from the depths as if looking for warmth and light, the voice and strings blending beautifully, and the winds adding colour at the phrase “freundlich die gestirnte Nacht” (“friendly the starry night”) as if the firmament was gently switched on at that moment by the musicians for our benefit. Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s violin solo took flight through these vistas, buoyed up by beautifully coloured accompaniments and preparing the way for the singer’s wonderful re-entry with “Und die Seele unbewacht…” (And the Soul, unguarded….”), the voice floated beautifully upwards, rising with the orchestral tones and bathing our senses in the golden-tinted epilogue.
Though not the most resplendent I’ve heard tackle these songs, Christiane Libor’s voice again rose to the occasion for the final Im Abendrot (In the Sunset), using her voice like one of the instrumental strands, as the composer intended, floating her line along with the orchestra, completely at one with the surrounding ambiences. The two skylarks rose like angelic sentinels, swiftly and surely, hailed by the solo violin and the singer, the latter raptly engaging with the music’s solitude at “o tief im Abendrot” (“deep in the sunset”) before surrendering all to the fading ambiences and the echoing tones of the skylarks.
Despite the occasional strained impulse colouring this and that note, the soprano acquitted herself nobly with de Waart’s and the orchestra’s whole-hearted support, achieving moments of rapt loveliness, especially in each of the last two songs. While I thought the instrumental detailings just a degree too obtrusive in places in the second song September, the playing elsewhere had a richness and focus which seemed to me to “own” the music from the inside, and which would have shone out thus anywhere and at any time.
That “owning the music from the inside” quality was, if anything, even more deeply pronounced throughout the performance of the Mahler Fourth Symphony which we heard in the concert’s second half. De Waart and his players created from the music’s outset a focused and purposeful mood which nonetheless embraced moments of reflective tenderness as part of the performance’s overall vision. This meant that the music’s second subject was phrased with all the flexibility and depth of feeling one could wish for, the dovetailings between strings and winds a delight, the former’s touches of portamento “personalising” the music’s feeling in an entirely natural-sounding way.
The development brought a whimsical violin solo, answered by a nicely assertive horn call, sounds which energised the music’s trajectories and opened up the vistas, the strings digging into their pizzicati and the flutes filling the valleys and hills with their calls. Tensions mounted with the repeated wind calls, the instruments playing out so gorgeously by frequently lifting their bells in the air, as directed to do so by the composer. The orchestral detailing in general, I thought stunning in its colouring and texturing, acerbic wind flourishes and excitable strings leading us impetuously towards the first of the movement’s two climactic “moments”, the trumpet’s call “rolling it out” and fetching up the weight and tumult of the full orchestra, amid strange pre-echoes of the composer’s Fifth Symphony. Throughout all of this we were INVOLVED by the playing’s assertiveness and the conductor’s judicious “when to hold, when to let go” direction.
The movement’s second upheaval, less seismic and more festive, was still just as resplendent, all orchestral guns in salute-mode, with the timpani terrific. How whole-hearted were the juices that were squeezed from the big second-subject tune on its reappearance! – and how rapturous everything was made to sound, leading up to the luftpause just before the movement’s laughing coda.
A more angular, tense and assertive mood characterised the second movement’s opening, the solos having a teeth-gritting, rather than a relaxed feeling about them throughout the opening paragraph, a mood which the horn and winds defused with some cheekily rustic accentings and phrasings, though traces of the composer’s angst-ridden sensibilities kept cutting through the textures. Once the trumpet “announced” the Trio section, a lovely lilt radiated from the rhythms, the winds really “springing” their melodies (the playing of one of the orchestra’s foundation players, clarinettist Frank Gurr, in a live 1975 performance I witnessed in the Wellington Town Hall, always comes to my mind at this point!) and the strings capturing the music’s nostalgic yearning over the double basses’ droll jog-trot – and what a schmaltz-fest those same strings evoked immediately afterwards, with tones melting on the bows like amber syrup, suffusing the ambiences with fulsome feeling! By the movement’s end, amid elephantine rumblings and po-faced wind-pipings, we felt we’d come a long way with de Waart and his players – and with Mahler!
The core of the symphony is, of course the slow movement, containing as it does a series of agitated attempts to find the peace and surety of a state approximating to heavenly life, far from the “Friend Death” blandishments and ironies characterised in the second movement. These sequences begin with long-breathed, lyrical lines from the strings, reinforced by winds, each episode of which turns to the key’s “relative minor” which darkens the mood. De Waart and the players controlled the ebb and flow of these sequences with startling focus and full-blooded responses, everything characterised as having a living, breathing quality, rather than as a series of picturesque contrasts. We felt as if each dissolution into anxiety and despair wrought by the agitations left the music sharpened with grimmer resolve to find “another way through”, which, of course, eventually came with a few faltering dance steps whose energies grew and then exploded with delight and relief! De Waart must have been thrilled with his players’ capacities to “deliver”, in places pushing tempi and tone to extremes, and having them grapple with and ride atop of all difficulties so successfully, though without the processes sounding in the least bit glib.
As for the transcendent moment at the movement’s end, when Heaven’s gates swung open and “glory shone around”, it was properly overwhelming – brass and percussion knocked spots off everything within cooee, the resonances in strings and winds joined forces and kept glowing right to the movement’s radiant dissolution into silence. Then, with the naive surety of a child’s
song, the four-note fanfare which dominates the final movement sounded, clarinettist Patrick Barry handing over to oboist Robert Orr, who then nudged the line over to flutist Bridget Douglas – and so it went on most mellifluously, the sequence completed by the return of singer Christiane Libor, to sing for us those wonderful verses taken from that collection of folk poetry which Mahler knew well, “Das Knaben Wunderhorn”, more specifically, a song he had written called Das himmlischer Leben (Heavenly Life).
Pure pleasure, all of it – Christiane Libor lightened and sprung her voice most beguilingly throughout, delivering by turns energy and focus with the words when relishing the food and its preparation, and then innocent sweetness and radiance over the last few pages, describing the heavenly music and the dancing of eleven thousand virgins to the celestial strains of “Cäcilia mit ehren Verwandten” (St. Cecilia with her relatives). De Waart and his musicians did full justice to these sequences, some of the most beautiful and lump-in-throat-inducing in all of Mahler’s music. It was, in short, a performance that, to my ears, realised the “character” of the music in a way entirely appropriate to both the work’s historical significance for the orchestra, and the latter’s relationship with its new Music Director.