A committed Mahler No.6 from Otto Tausk in the Vancouver Symphony’s opener

CanadaCanada Mahler, Thorvaldsdottir: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Otto Tausk (conductor). Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 15.9.2023. (GN)

Otto Tausk © Aaron Aubrey

Mahler – Symphony No.6 in A minor

One might think that an orchestra should wade gently into a new season, but this opening Vancouver Symphony Orchestra concert was hardly that. It featured both Mahler’s testing Sixth and Catamorphosis, a recently-premiered, twenty-minute piece by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Given the circumstances, the orchestra performed remarkably well, with notable contributions from the winds and brass. Otto Tausk took the symphony to heart, and gave a tight-knit reading of considerable dramatic reach, achieving a strong natural momentum in the difficult finale. The performance of Thorvaldsdottir’s excellent piece left a more mixed impression.

The first Mahler revolution took place in the 1960s, spawning a second exploratory wave up to the mid-1990s, and an enduring consequence has been that younger conductors today have their heart set on conducting a Mahler cycle as the crowning test of their art. Otto Tausk started his Mahler journey with the VSO in 2019 with the composer’s Symphony No.1, but was not very successful in climbing into the Mahlerian idiom or achieving the right type of sound. He performed the Fifth Symphony last June, and now we are at the Sixth, with the conductor seeming to find a style he is more comfortable with. Given the instrumental resources of the VSO, the result is a fairly small-scale Mahler with strong rhythmic point and climaxes, which, most importantly, shows a better understanding of the composer’s expressive palette.

Tausk favoured a quick speed for the opening march of Symphony No.6, clearly aiming for momentum and integration rather than amplitude. It reminded me somewhat of George Szell’s treatment years ago. Though I missed some of the earthiness of the digging lower strings at this tempo, upper string sforzandi were achieved with authority, and climaxes always had a spontaneity. ‘Alma’s theme’ was shaped well even if its phrasing was on the economical side. The opening Allegro is a long movement, and only occasionally did I find the conductor’s ‘on the beat’ rhythmic emphasis a little too dominating. That said, Tausk made an effort to coax out sensitive wind playing in the quieter rustic moments, allowing some feeling of deliberation, though much of the mystery and macabre intimations remained absent. I might note that I have heard more authentic cowbells.

Though I prefer the Scherzo before the Andante (since the former is motivically-linked to the opening movement), this performance followed the current critical edition by placing the Andante first. Tausk was a little self-effacing to begin and failed to achieve real repose, but he made amends by finding strong feeling in the loving cantabile string theme in the middle and in the dramatic protestation at the end. While this movement ended as a success, the Scherzo went for relatively little. It was just too fast to capture the hectoring, threatening qualities of the rhythmic thrust. I could not even pick out the first three notes on the timpani that send the movement off.

The real triumph was the finale, which articulated its ‘classical’ structure with poise (it is written in sonata form), largely eschewing the cinematics that often tempt others. It was a powerful statement, sometimes searing in its intensity, and unerring in identifying the natural pulse of the music. The soaring high violins at the opening might not have penetrated the heavens as much as they usually do, but the meaning and force behind the subsequent counterpoint came out strongly. There were only two hammer blows (I think correctly), delivered with authority and integrative force. The last gave way to a wonderfully suspended treatment of the darker musing before the final resolution. The result was a more affirmative version of the symphony than some, but what stood out in the finale was the conductor’s involvement with the music, and his ability to convey its contents without indulgence. The orchestra played very well for him.

While Mahler often thought Nature could be cruel to man (e.g. Symphony No.3), Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Catamorphosis joins a growing list of contemporary pieces that attempt to convey man’s abuse of (fragile) Nature. It was premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic in 2021 under Kirill Petrenko, and has received continuing performances worldwide. The work is a subtle and powerful soundscape, beginning and ending with lovely rustlings and rumblings on strings and percussion that could be wind or sea, or just the murmurs of the earth. Its dynamics expand and contract artfully through different sound planes, so to speak, always maintaining a sense of foreboding. Alongside a myriad of imaginative instrumental effects, noteworthy features of the structure are an anchoring pedal bass and quiet, sustained notes on the upper strings (often presented in triads and sometimes involving slides) that convey icy shades of lament or, possibly, fragile hope. Strong, craggy, sustained brass notes seem to act as the conscience of the strings. The violins move once, and only once, to a violent ascending glissando – a punctuating ‘shriek’, much like in Sibelius’s Tapiola. The music then proceeds to stronger legato lines in the lower strings with strange, stabbing violin figurations challenging them on top. It ultimately descends to the rustling textures from which it began.

It seems that this composition must be presented in sharp relief, where changes in dynamics and expression are readily exposed yet textures remain relatively sparse. I thought this VSO performance may have started along these lines, but it became simply too lush in the work’s middle sections, seeking too much homogeneity of texture and ending up with expression that was overly comfortable and perhaps slightly generic. Even the sustained notes of the high violins conveyed a type of romantic sentimentality rather than a stark purity of utterance. The weight of the string textures clouded other instrumental lines, and their legato emphasis certainly took me closer to Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia than any of the bleaker reaches of Sibelius’s Symphony No.4 or The Tempest. Such an approach proved to be attractive in a more generalized way, but there is no doubt the work’s individuality and character rests on it being suspended and austere. It is a gripping and beautifully-judged piece and, above all, must be shown to fit within the Scandinavian tradition to which it often refers.

In any case, it was a full menu for a season-opening concert, and very enjoyable too. The orchestra should be proud of their start.

Geoffrey Newman

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