Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
Gustav Mahler / Miguel Harth Bedoya
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Auckland Town Hall
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Napier Municipal Theatre
Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
Before the main work on the programme of the NZSO “Heavenly” concert, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 4, the orchestra played the young American composer Gabriella Smith’s “Tumbleweed Contrails”. Just as Mahler’s works often reference the natural world, Smiths work was also inspired by Nature and natural forces and it sounded as though the composer had been inspired by the sounds she would have detected with her ear to the ground, pressed up against a growing tree, or immersed in a flowing stream.
The work is mixture of the sounds of Nature – animal, birds and insects along with the sounds of wind in the trees and the burbling of water. She seems to have taken these sounds and then slowed them down or sped them up so they are only just recognisable. Throughout the work there is a constant whispering as through the spirits of all these elements was being fed into the composition and then in the final moments of the work we realise what we can hear is probably the breath of the composer herself.
The rhythms of Nature have been transposed into music and seem be following mathematical shapes and sine waves. It is this mathematical rigour which conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya then applied to his conducting with precision and exactitude giving the work a sense of profound insight and sensitivity
One of the impressive things about Mahler’s music is that the man looms out of the music. He is present at these performances, with the conductor becoming his alter ego and we are presented with the man and his struggle to express himself through his music in a way few other composers manage to do.
Mahler had a relationship with Sigmund Freud both as a client as well as friend and in much of his Symphony No 4 the music appears to be attempts to understand his inner psychological states. As an autobiographical work it alludes to the composer’s personality as well as his own family’s encounters with death and despair.
Central to the symphony is the song “The Heavenly Life” which is sung in the final movement. The song is a child’s version of heaven, but as with his other works this childlike, innocent vision is tempered with notions of death.
Mahler’s task was to complement the naive, childlike tone of the poem, and also the convey the ethereal lightness of heaven. The orchestration is light and the instrumentation distinctive, with bells, flutes and pianissimo strings. The soprano solo adds the final heavenly quality.
Mahler’s symphonies have so much drama, invention and contrasts that it would probably easy for them to be conducted without too much control but conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, was quite clearly in controlling the orchestra so that subtle nuances were made evident and individual instruments were allowed to shine.
The contrasts and contradiction in the music need to be realised and Harth-Bedoya and the orchestra achieved that, providing sounds that ranged from the from the childlike to the mature and from the bold strokes to the simple gesture.
The first movement with its sounds of sleigh bells evoking the child’s delight in Christmas are soon followed by darker undertones. Then there was an exquisite passage of angelic voices delivered by the four flutes and later the sound of the bells themselves seem to cast an ominous sound.
“Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle” by Arnold Böcklin
The second movement picks up on themes we heard in Gabriella Smiths work with numerous references to Nature, birds, Spring and an awakening again there is a darker element which refers to the painting “Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle” by Arnold Böcklin which obsessed Mahler. This image was given form by Concert master Vesa-Matti Leppanen playing on a slightly discordant gypsy violin
Harth-Bedoya created some enchanting ethereal moods in the third movement “Ruhevoll” (Restful) where the music conveys the transition from earthly state to heavenly life
Madelaine Peirard gave an impressive performance in the final movement singing “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life). From the outset, this movement had been the destination and source of the entire work with many of the previous musical themes repeated in the song, its motifs creating a sense of arrival and completion.
While the poem is a depiction of heaven as seen through the eyes of a child there is also a disconcerting element and one of the verses has the lines
‘We lead a patient
A dear little lamb to its death”
Rather than singing in the childlike voice which Mahler seems to have preferred she took on the voice of an angel carrying the work with an astute understanding
She inhabited the stage with a real presence giving the song and expressive, vibrancy which was at time ecstatic and at others tender and joyful.