Mahler Chamber Orchestra | 2019 Adelaide FestivalThe Mahler Chamber Orchestra is that rare beast among the world’s orchestras, a democratic institution. The players themselves founded it, and they choose their conductors. It has musicians from over 20 nations, and assembles for specific tours acoss Europe and the world.

Why would a band of 45 players describe themselves as a chamber orchestra? They rarely play without a conductor – in their two Adelaide programs they were conducted by Claudio Abbado’s successor, Daniel Harding – and they play music that is not usually described as chamber music. I think that by their choice of name they mean to indicate that they play symphonic repertoire as if it were chamber music. The first desk of each of the string sections spent more time looking at each other than the conductor, and the band is just small enough for almost everyone to hear everyone else, so they can adjust the blend and balance to some extent as in chamber music, without the conductor having to do very much.

But Mahler chamber orchestra? That composer of a Symphony of a thousand? Oh, but yes – despite the frenetic climaxes, and the passages for a vast string section, that Mahler writes, much of his orchestral texture is sparse and almost chamber-music like. However, the centrepiece of the MCO’s two Adelaide programs was not Mahler, but a symphony by that least chamber-music-like 19th century symphonist of all, Anton Bruckner.

Bruckner’s symphonies are all cathedrals of sound, and the fourth is no exception. Harding began the symphony so softly that I really couldn’t hear when it started – the string tremolo seemed to rise up like mist which the solo horn penetrated with ever-increasing clarity. I think Harding must know the story of Bruckner conducting one of his symphonies, telling the musicians over and over that they were too loud, until they eventually stopped playing altogether, whereupon Bruckner said “Yes! That’s it.” The opening was really magical, and the movement continued in this vein, with massive dynamic contrasts between very soft pianissimo and triple fortes which even the excellent acoustic of the Adelaide Town Hall could barely cope with. There were several grades of loudness too, clearly differentiating between Bruckner’s markings of forte, fortissimo and triple forte.

Because the orchestra is small enough for all the players to be able to hear each other, the intonation of this orchestra is on another level from conventional orchestras. Normally after the crashing climaxes in Bruckner symphonies, when the wind have to play softly immediately afterwards they are always out of tune. But not only did this never happen, but the climaxes themselves had a purity of pitch which was almost supernatural. The extreme tact shown throughout the performance by the brass section helped this, allowing the wind to hear themselves at all times. This unusual clarity made it possible to hear things in the music which usually are not noticed, such as the rushing woodwind passages in the middle of the scherzo, where they sounded as if they were being chased away by the strings and the brass.

The solo horn, played by José Vicedo as if it were indeed Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the youth’s magic horn) continued throughout the movement, and indeed the whole symphony, with pure perfection of sound. Julia Gallego’s flute-playing was to die for. The cello section was gorgeous in the second subject of the first movement, and in the main theme of the second. One could go on and on – basically all the solo playing was just wonderful, and the section playing too.

Despite occasional signposts like the quotation from the closing chorus of Bach’s St John Passion, “Ruht wohl” – rest well [in death], at the end of the slow movement, it is difficult, and perhaps pointless, to search for a “program” in this symphony. So when the scherzo starts by playing a version of King Mark’s hunt from the second act of Tristan, the rest of the context of Wagner’s scene is not to be assumed. Bruckner adored Wagner (he dedicated all his symphonies to God except for one that he dedicated to Wagner), but he used to shut his eyes at performances, and had no idea what the operas were about. The trio is folkish, and just the sort of music we find all over Mahler’s symphonies, but without a trace of Mahlerian irony, so again entirely unprogrammatic.

Throughout, Daniel Harding’s conducting seemed more guidance than control, but in fact I think his conception of the music was entirely coherent, and the architecture of this gigantic symphony was never in danger of crumbling. And tiny details were magical too – when the violin phrases end in nothing they ended not definitely but in what Keats would have called pure amaze.

The Bruckner symphony was paired with Schubert’s D Major symphony (no. 3), but I was too late, racing into the city from Ukaria at Mount Barker, so I missed it. But I did hear the orchestra’s Mozart concert the following day.

They performed the last three symphonies, two in the first half and the Jupiter in the second. I enjoyed the Eb, no. 39, least. Here, unlike in the Bruckner symphony, there was only one grande of loud, which was fortissimo, and I got really tired of the sameness of this sound. It contrasted vividly with the nuance and beautiful phrasing that the orchestra gave in pianissimo, piano, and mezzoforte – it was a single, unphrased loud sound. As we heard more and more of this sound I began to be disturbed by its metallic quality, and realised that Mozart’s violins, with gut strings, couldn’t ever have sounded that brash. I missed the gentleness of gut strings – even when playing loudly they have a softness about them that especially metal E-strings cannot even simulate. And then I realised that Bruckner’s violins also would have had at least gut Es and As, and this helped explain my sense of stridency of the loudest passages in their performance the previous night.

This raises the whole subject of historically informed performance. Many of the players showed a strong awareness of the sound Mozart would have expected. The timpanist, Martin Peichotta, although playing on the same drums that sounded so vast in the Bruckner symphony, made them sound grungy like 18th century timpani. Both bassoons (Guilhaume Santana and Miriam Kofler) conjured up a more woody sound for the Mozart symphonies, and they obviously had so much fun with the music – they were both practically dancing with their instruments. Gallego’s flute had a straighter sound than in the Bruckner. The viola section, and the celli too, kept their long notes warm but straight. The oboes, when they played in unison at the end of the Jupiter, sounded like high, piercing trumpets, and that is exactly what Mozart expected here. And yet, with all this knowledge and skill in the orchestra, it still sounded a little muddy in places.

After the closing bars of the Eb symphony, and brief applause, Daniel Harding plunged straight into the G minor, no. 40. It was so abrupt that it seemed to be another movement of the Eb symphony – even the key change was one which fitted Mozart’s practice, and its tempo was related to that of the finale of the previous piece. It took me a long time to listen to this movement as the first of a completely different piece. Because it really is completely different. No 39, in the Masonic key of Eb, is noble, full-textured, with the mellow tone of the clarinets which Mozart liked so much, whereas the 40th is much sparer in texture – oboes instead of clarinets, though he added these later, and the MCO used this version – and there are long, sinuous phrases instead of stable statements about the immutability of things. Harding’s abrupt plunge into this music, without giving time for us to adjust, as it were, reminded me forcibly of Edward T Cone’s insistence that music has a frame of silence, which is an indispensable part of the experience, and without which an individual piece of music cannot be truly understood.

However, once I had got over this, I enjoyed this performance much more. The loud passages, though just the same in sound, were fewer, and it really did sound like chamber music, with the wind and strings answering each other sighingly, and the interplay within the wind section quite delightful. The performance was interesting in regards to tempo. All the movements were played fast, except the trio of the minuet, and the finale. The savagery of the minuet was the most remarkable; the slow movement, at that speed, needs to relax just a little at the enchanting four bar sequence of 7ths with the solo winds playing so imploringly. But it was still interesting, and made one rethink the piece as more passionate and operatic, less melancholy. This operatic effect was at a maximum at the start of the development of the finale, where Harding played the passage as a violent, jagged recitative, suddenly free from the main tempo.

The Jupiter, no 41, was completely different. Everything had time to breathe. The opening, with its contrasting phrases, sounded just like a conversation (something like “I want you to do this!” “Oh, but have you thought about that?”). The slow movement was played like the slow movement of the C major piano concerto – also in F – and the leisurely tempo, combined with the unusual clarity of the MCO, allowed every phrase in the searing chromaticism of the D minor passages to make its effect. The minuet was no faster than the lovely lyrical trio, and only in the finale did the sustained loud sound become a shade too much. It somehow made the incessant four-part counterpoint of the movement sound as if there were six or seven parts at once. However, I suppose that just adds to the excitement of this amazing movement.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra are an outfit unlike any other orchestra. The two concerts, taken together, were a remarkable experience, which expanded my understanding of the possibilities inherent in orchestral performance.

2019 Adelaide Festival
Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Program One:
Schubert: Symphony No.3 in D major, D.200
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, WAB104 ‘Romantic’ (1878)

Program Two:
Mozart’s Last Symphonies
Symphony No.39 in E-flat major, K.543
Symphony No.40 in G minor, K.550
Symphony No.41 in C major, K.551 ‘Jupiter’

Conductor Daniel Harding

Venue: Adelaide Town Hall – Auditorium | 128 King William Street, Adelaide SA
Dates: 8 – 10 Mar 2019
Tickets: $179 – $60


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