MAHLER 4 LIVE!
Orchestra of the Music Makers
Esplanade Concert Hall, May 1
It has been some time since audiences in Singapore witnessed a live performance of a Gustav Mahler symphony – the last of note being the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Mahler’s Second in January 2019.
The Covid-19 pandemic and circuit breaker have not helped, given the Austrian composer’s propensity for celestial lengths and large orchestras.
But trust the Orchestra of the Music Makers, Mahler specialist among local ensembles, to wangle three performances of his Fourth Symphony this weekend.
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The Fourth is Mahler’s shortest and most lightly orchestrated symphony – which makes it pandemic gold amid safe management measures that limit onstage performers to a maximum of 30.
German conductor Klaus Simon’s 2007 chamber arrangement of the symphony requires just 23 players.
So transpired this mini-miracle in the spirit of Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, which undertook chamber readings of large orchestral works in intimate settings in 1920s Vienna.
Simon’s economical orchestration unusually included the accordion and piano to support a small group of strings, winds – one person to a part – and two percussionists.
Instead of being overawed, these forces worked like a charm.
The tinkling of sleigh bells opened the symphony with feathery lightness. Smooth strings later took over in establishing the first movement’s thematic and melodic interest.
It was to young conductor Seow Yibin’s credit that the pacing did not lag. There were pivotal moments which piqued the ears, such as Miao Kaiwen’s clarinet solo, which quoted the funereal trumpet call of Mahler’s next symphony, the tumultuous Fifth.
Concertmaster Zhao Tian starred in the second movement by alternating between two violins. One was tuned a tone higher to suggest “Death playing the fiddle”, providing an unnerving and somewhat macabre vibe to an otherwise innocuous Scherzo.
The slow movement was the symphony’s heart, characterised by a truly moving ebb and flow of emotion. Again, it was the strings that did the heavy tugging.
The icing on the cake was when soprano Teng Xiang Ting emerged in a blood-red gown to sing the finale’s strophic song, Das Himmlischer Leben (The Heavenly Life).
Its words, from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, paint a child’s innocent vision of paradise.
Her German was idiomatic and the depth of feeling real and unforced, providing a blissful close to the symphony’s mere 55 minutes.
There were two apt vocal encores, first the satirical comic song Lob Des Hohen Verstandes (Praise Of Lofty Intellect), another Mahler setting on Wunderhorn songs, also quoted in his Fifth Symphony.
Next, Richard Strauss’ Morgen! (Tomorrow!) revealed pure beauty in both Zhao’s solo violin introduction and Teng’s entreaties.
Its words, “Tomorrow the sun will shine again… and the stillness of happiness will sink upon us,” supplied comfort and hope for an uncertain future.
This article was originally published in The Straits Times.