Photo – Nic Walker

This concert comprised three works for chamber orchestra. One, Wagner's exquisite Siegfried Idyll, was indeed originally written for chamber orchestra. The other two were arrangements: the accompaniment for Alma Mahler's three songs was scored up from its original piano, by David Matthews, and the vast orchestral texture of Mahler's great work was scored down to 18 players, by none other than Arnold Schönberg.

Siegfried Idyll, although it contains many musical references to his opera Siegfried, on which Wagner was working when he wrote it, is an intimate, gentle work, worlds away from the epic scale Wagner is best known for. The work was beautifully caressed into life by Richard Tognetti and his band. The players, unconducted except for the occasional waft of Tognetti's bow, played all of the music, even when they were not actually playing, and their total involvement was a joy to watch. The only moments of ambiguity in the music are when it rests on augmented chords; the different resolutions of each of these chords was greeted with smiles from the players.

A very interesting addition to the program was three songs by Alma Schindler. Alma studied composition under that ubiquitous figure Zemlinsky, and was deeply impressed by Wagner, as of course was Gustav Mahler. She wrote over 100 songs before she took the unwise decision to become Mrs Mahler, who told her to stop composition and devote her musical skills to supporting her husband's music.

(If I had any hair left I would tear it out at the way male composers have extinguished the creative flame of their often extraordinary wives. Schumann did it – and although Bach did not, the male canon-makers have done it for him, unwilling to accept that some of the compositions of the Father of Music were written by a woman … but don't get me started.)

Catherine Carby sang three of the five songs that Gustav finally allowed Alma to publish (most of the rest have been lost). Both in Alma's choice of poems and in their lush, late romantic musical idiom they betoken a sophistication of expression and a subtlety of form remarkable in a teenager. Carby's delivery of these songs was intense, so that I felt she could have composed them herself. Her lower register, which has a gorgeous soft purple colour, would have easily been heard over the original piano accompaniment, but struggled a bit with David Matthews’ perhaps over-enthusiastic arrangement. But Carby is a delight to listen to.

The printed program contained a thought-provoking essay on Mahler by Daniel Keene, and a delightful conversation between the two soloists, mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby and tenor Stuart Skelton, but nowhere discussed Schönberg's reduction of Mahler's score.

I am not a fan of such of the Schönberg arrangements I know. His “liberation” of Brahms’ first piano quartet gives the fourth tune in the exposition to the clarinet in its middle register, showing tactlessly how close Brahms sometimes gets to cafe music. His arrangement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde is fascinating, however. Mahler's music has a unique capacity to peel off the skin of the emotions, exposing the raw nerves underneath, and with only five rather than forty string instruments to sweeten the acerbity of the brass, wind, and percussion, Schönberg's arrangement exaggerated this capacity. The result, in the hands of Tognetti, who directed with his whole body, and the singers Carby and Skelton, was more than spine-tingling.

My first review for this journal, in 2012, was of Das Lied, and Skelton was the tenor then too. What a journey he has come with this piece since then! His performance 12 years ago was masterful, but now he has completely made the three songs he sings in it his own. He is the drunken poet. He has become Li Po, leaning over the side of a boat to catch the moon's reflection in the water. His boisterous tenor voice thinks nothing of the monstrous difficulties of the first song, and portrays with utter conviction the intense seriousness of being drunk – a version of “In vino veritas”. Then his voice becomes gentle, drunkenly playful in the two slighter songs that follow, and in der Trunkene im Frühling he responds to Sally Walker's piccolo as if he's never heard one before.

Catherine Carby was like a mirror image of Skelton. Far from imposing her will on every note, she sang as if one of the many instruments in the score. In this way she penetrated the interstices of this work in a most unusual way. Her rendering of Der Einsame im Herbst was a duet between her and the sublime playing of Shefali Prior on the oboe, in which, until her last outburst on “Sonne der Liebe”, she allowed the oboe to carry the emotional content of the piece, as if it were too deep for words. And in those three passages in Der Abschied where Mahler depicts the huge void between a single flute, (divinely played by Sally Walker), and low cello C, Carby sang in the space between almost tonelessly, aware that, behind her simple narrative, the vast abyss opened up by itself. But in the long delayed climax, at “allüberall”, the passage that Kathleen Ferrier could never get through without dissolving in tears, Carby's voice became incandescent with passion.

Schönberg's arrangement include a piano, which sometimes plays Mahler's harp, and sometimes fills in aggressively for the missing brass instruments. Did Stefan Cassomenos, who played the piano like a ringmaster, decide to lean into the strings to simulate harp glissandi, or was that Schönberg's instruction?

In any case, this arrangement gives chamber musicians the opportunity to participate in Mahler's masterpiece, an opportunity which most of them have probably never had. The pleasure the ACO had in playing Das Lied was contagious. The audience went wild at the end; although I would have preferred the applause to have waited for the last word, "ewig", eternally, to have had the chance to fade completely. Please don't clap too soon!

I heard the third iteration of this program. If you are within striking distance of the Llewellyn Hall, or the Melbourne Arts Centre, you still have a chance to catch it this coming weekend.

Event details

Australian Chamber Orchestra presents
Song of the Earth

Director Richard Tognetti

Venue: Queensland Performing Arts Centre QLD
Dates: 20 May 2024
Tickets: from $59

ALSO TOURING - Check the ACO website for details

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