Mahler's Fourth | Omega EnsembleLeft – Lee Abrahamsen

“So how does Mahler 4 sound when you've fired about 80% of the orchestra?!”

Thus begins a review of one of the arrangements of this symphony by Andrew Macgregor in 2004. The arrangement in question was made at Schoenberg’s behest by Erwin Stein in 1921. Since Macgregor’s review, Klaus Smith has rearranged Stein’s arrangement, preserving the harmonium but adding two instruments to Stein’s quota of 12. It was this version that the Omega Ensemble performed (though the printed program didn’t acknowledge this, and the program note was written as if for the full orchestra version).

The answer is complex. Mahler’s scoring is very frequently on a chamber music scale within the huge orchestra of his symphonies, and the 4th is the most chamber-music-like of all of them, omitting trombones and tuba. So a great deal of the time the scoring for 14 instruments sounded perfectly natural, and the transparency of having single strings meant that I heard lines from the wind that I hadn’t ever heard before. The harmonium and the bass drum are used ingeniously to thicken out the texture at the minor climaxes, and the piano supplies a bit of bite to the sforzandos and a warmth to the bass. It was wonderful to hear Teija Hylkema impersonating a whole cello section, especially in the slow movement – what one lost in the soft sea of Mahler’s sound was more than made up for in a subtlety of phrasing that is barely possible on a big string section. In the very big climaxes I admit I missed that sea of sound, but otherwise the only instrument whose absence was conspicuous was the trumpet. Michael Dixon’s beautiful and versatile horn-playing made up for some of this to be sure, and among a deeply committed and brilliant ensemble I would also single out Matthew Bubb’s gorgeous low-register oboe playing, and conversely the velvety sound of the bassoon in the top octave, played by Ben Hoadley.

The performance was without a conductor, real chamber music, which meant that details of ensemble were up to all sorts of combinations of players to realise. This gave an intensity of detail to the performance rarely found in performances by full orchestra, but at the expense of the big-picture overview that a conductor (if you are lucky) contributes. Having said that, I felt that the commitment and responsibility of every player in this ensemble communicated itself to the audience in a very exciting way.

The ensemble was joined for this concert by the soprano Lee Abrahamsen. She sang the final movement of the Mahler with a radiant, soaring sound that could easily have floated over a full orchestra. And she sang vibrantly in both of the other pieces on the program too.

These were both recent works by Australian composers. “The Australian works were great” I heard an audience member say after the concert, and yes they were. It was a significant piece of programming to team up both Paul Stanhope’s Songs for the Shadowland and Mark Isaacs new Chamber Symphony with the Mahler symphony. Both pieces felt completely at home there. In neither was there the feeling that the composer was duty bound to say something new; rather there was the sense that both composers not only had something to say but didn’t need to prove it with any particular novelty.

Stanhope’s Shadowland songs, first performed 15 years ago in Brisbane, are a moving triptych of songs to texts by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, one of the most plangent voices in Australian poetry. They are to do with death and loss, and although both the poet and Stanhope talk about hope for the future, the music is to my mind unequivocally dark. The first song, with its striking, surprising resonances of Mahler’s Kindertötenlieder, is the most beautiful piece of Stanhope’s I have yet heard. In both the other songs, one can hear the voice of Ross Edwards muttering approvingly over his shoulder (it is no accident that Stanhope has set, for choir, one of Dransfield’s Geography songs which Edwards set for voice and piano). Lee Abrahmsen negotiated the gentle yet unpredictable vocal lines with great engagement. Without wishing to detract in any way from her deep engagement with this music, my personal feeling was that I would have preferred a greater intimacy, and indeed simplicity, perhaps from a singer such as Belinda Montgomery.

And I would have been glad to have the texts of Stanhope’s songs in the program, too, since to my shame I am not sufficiently well acquainted with Noonuccal’s work. Stanhope’s engagement with Aboriginal culture is anything but superficial, as his Jandamarra, performed by the SSO last year, testifies,  and I look forward to hearing these songs again soon with the texts in front of me.

A greater contrast in mood between these songs and Mark Isaacs’ Chamber Symphony can scarcely be imagined. It is full of joie de vivre, deeply relaxed, relaxed so much that its swings into his jazz idioms seem to occur absolutely naturally, integrated into the sound world even more seamlessly than in his recent Symphony no 1 (2013). Will this be called Symphony no 2? It's certainly as symphonic as any other chamber symphony I know. The suave urbanity of the transitions between searching harmonies and jaunty rhythms, which I would venture is a hall-mark of Isaacs’ idiom, are articulated with complete assurance. The slow movement is a berceuse with a wordless vocalise, interpolated between two interconnected movements. (I would be curious to know what happens when finally Isaacs sets a text for a singer.) The Omega Ensemble, which Isaacs himself conducted, was drawn irresistibly into the élan of this uplifting music, which elicited a thrilled response from the audience.

This concert was a fine showcase for the Omega Ensemble, which to my mind can take its place with the Song Company and Pinchgut Opera as musical endeavours brought about by brilliant directors (in this case the clarinettist David Rowden) collaborating with a bunch of excellent musicians all of whom care passionately about the kind of music that they are making. And without such as these, musical life in this country would be immeasurably poorer.

Omega Ensemble
Mahler's Fourth

Venue: City Recital Hall Angel Place
Date: July 20, 2015
Tickets: $89 – $29

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