United States Sun Valley Music Festival – Mahler: Julia Bullock (soprano), Sun Valley Festival Orchestra / Alasdair Neale (conductor). Sun Valley Pavilion, Ketchum, Idaho, 8.9.2021. (LV)
Mahler – Symphony No.4 in G major
It was, as conductor Alasdair Neale told the audience of nearly 3500, ‘a radiantly beautiful evening for Mahler’s most radiant symphony’. And it was a radiant performance that followed by a Festival Orchestra made up of concertmasters and first chair players from the land’s best bands who knew the Symphony inside out and played for Neale as if it were a love affair. No wonder there is a waiting list for new players to get in.
After a slightly tentative start adorned with flutes and sleigh bells that sounded like they had come down from Sun Valley’s alpine meadows, the full orchestra, eight double basses strong, swept in with unusually rich orchestral sound for an outdoor hall. The oboe playing was outstanding, the cello selection was a marvel of sumptuous beauty, and the woodwinds were obviously having a ball. In contrast to conductors who insist on pulling Mahler around, Neale put his stamp on the symphony by letting it move along seemingly without effort, angelically at times with string glissandi and textures so transparent that you could even hear the contrabassoon. At the full climax, the orchestra seemed to be deeply passionate about what they were playing, the oboes with their bells up made a splendid visual, and the Central European sway of the music, which Neale lovingly encouraged, had knowing heads in the audience keeping time with the beat. The French horn was lovely throughout, and Neale and the orchestra had lots of fun with the barnyard ending to the obvious delight of the audience.
The second movement was a little quicker than Mahler’s ‘without haste’ might indicate, but it felt fresh and new and a welcome change from over-interpretation. The clarinet solo was deliciously rustic, and concertmaster Jeremy Constant’s scordatura solos on his Vuillaume were more gently lyrical than usual and made their point without being grotesque. Neale’s coaxing of the Trio raised thoughts of what a different, less troubled Mahler might have been like.
The variations movement flowed with a slow, even pulse, occasionally suspended in moments of ecstatic silence, with more beautiful oboe playing, audiophile glissandi in the violins and brass, and Constant exceptional again in his brief duet with the French horn. The series of pianissimos leading up to the fourth movement’s opening blaze of glory were exquisitely judged, the glory itself seemed to ring out through the Pavilion and across the lawn, and Julia Bullock sang with a seamless, warm voice but restrained emotional impact.