The troops were gathered, the weapons tuned. The general stood, ready for action, in front of the battalions. The flag went up then BOOM. Battle commenced.
Mahler’s third Symphony is an epic battle between life and death, hope and despair, from a man who knew all these things intimately. That he could make such a fervent case for life and hope considering his life, so brutally pock-marked with tragedy, is amazing. That he could make this enormous, unwieldy, nutty chunk of musical philosophy a gripping journey of constantly unfolding wonders is nigh on miraculous.
The challenge for the combined forces of Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the women of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, and Sydney Children’s Choir was to navigate their way through this epic work with pace and coherence, and they did. Even at the moments of chaos, through the dull, forbidding roar of low timpani, past the gibbering winds, there was an enduring sense of direction, a reaching out towards the ultimate triumph of light over dark. It took a while to get there, and things got scary at times, but there were never any thoughts of turning back. Not with artistic director and chief conductor, David Robertson, leading the charge, and Andrew Haveron, concertmaster, as valiant knight.
This really was a you-have-to-be-there performance: three pairs of cymbals clashing together is just a racket on the radio, but on stage you see six great golden plates doing their synchronised swing. Likewise, the bells-up clarinet doesn’t just sound louder; it looks loud, it looks rude and threatening, like a gun aimed squarely at you, yes, you. And seeing the serried ranks of the Sydney Children’s Choir, heads nodding as they counted their bars rest, breathing as one before firing off volleys of ‘bim, bam!’ bells was compelling.
Much to see. Much to hear. Much to understand. Whether or not one grasped Mahler’s vastness of vision, it was nicely enacted through the arrangement of the orchestra: first and second violins were arranged antiphonally, and further divided into front and back desks, so that they seemed to be isolated voices calling to each other across the expanse of the stage; the basses and cellos were on stage right, the bass drum centre back, and the tuba and bass trombones stage left, their rusty growls surrounding the orchestra; and off in the distance was patient, loving humanity, in the guise of the women of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.
And then there was Susan Graham. Graham was last in Sydney two years ago, singing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Now she’s here for two weeks with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, appearing in Ravel’s Sheherezade and this, Mahler’s Third. Her “O Mensch, gib Acht!” was like a revelation, focussed but never hard, brave but questioning, the still centre of the symphony.
If Graham was the still centre, Robertson was the lightning conductor, catalysing and directing the roiling, explosive energy contained in the huge array of instruments before him. It’s a massive symphony but, under his direction, it never felt chaotic: in those exquisite moments of other-worldly violins and glittery harp-pings the world suddenly, for a few fragile moments, made sense; then, in the final movement the eight horns roared, the trumpets blazed, and the final movement played out in all its majestic, radiant, wait-for-it wait-for-it, just-a-bit-more, yes, glory. Yes.
You can catch another performance (and if you can, you should) this Friday, Saturday and Monday. It will also be broadcast on Saturday 29 July at noon on ABC Classic FM, (but you’ll have to imagine the cymbals).