Simone YoungLeft – Simone Young. Photo – Monika Rittershaus

All too rarely in Australia do we have the chance of listening to Mahler’s masterwork, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) in concert. Half symphony, half song-cycle, it blends the two fields in which Mahler’s music found expression into a whole which is a true consummation of his life’s work. In a piece of inspired programming, it was preceded on Saturday night by his fourth symphony, as the Queensland Symphony Orchestra welcomed home Australia’s finest conductor, Simone Young. It made for a long concert, as each work is close to an hour, but the audience was enraptured. Both works are about the overwhelming beauty of the world, and the paradoxical anguish that nonetheless so often accompanies our lives in it. And the final movement of the fourth symphony breaks into song, in a poem about life in heaven, which leads naturally to the lyrical transcendence of the Song of the Earth.

While Das Lied is a rarity in our concert halls, Mahler’s fourth symphony is one of the most familiar. Simone Young coaxed the most varied textures out of the orchestra with an impeccable ear for balance. Many great conductors have either an ability so to embody the music that players cannot but  be drawn into the shaping of the music (for example Giulini), or a clarity of signals that shape individual phrases perfectly (Bychkov). Simone Young has both, in equal measure. Dancing relaxedly in the bucolic passages, tense and violent in the anguished moments, sinuous and elastic in the passages marked by the deep inner longing that is connoted by the word Sehnsucht, there was not a bar in this performance that was left unexpressed by her, or that failed to reach the spell-bound audience.

The chamber-music-like textures of so much of this symphony elicited beautiful playing from many in the orchestra, among whom I would single out the principal oboist, Huw Jones, and the entire horn section. The acoustics of the hall are not ideal, favouring as they do the upper partials of the harmonic series, so that it is much easier to sound brilliant than warm. Thus the violins and upper wind are favoured, the cellos and bassoons less so. And yet the extreme bass, the register of the contra-bassoon and the double basses, was rich and velvety.

The concert featured three singers. Soprano Natalie Christie Peluso sang about the joys of the heavenly life at the end of the symphony (a place where the angels bake bread, wine is free, and, alarmingly, Herod is the butcher!). Her performance was engaging, and well projected the innocence essential to coping with this text. It seemed to me, however, that the part lay slightly too low for her voice, which had more ring at the top than in the middle register, though the acoustic of the hall may have been responsible for that.

The tenor, Simon O’Neill from New Zealand, reminded me strongly of Julius Patzac, who sang in the recording with Kathleen Ferrier under Bruno Walter in the recording through which I got to know the work. O’Neill has the same brilliant ring, almost a double-reed sound, which can cut through even the tumultuous clamour of the uncompromisingly scored first song, Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (the drinking song of earth’s sorrow). And what a performance it was! Immensely commanding, refusing to let the audience sit back and wallow, grabbing it by the throat and forcing it to attend to the idiocies of human behaviour which are so against the natural world.

The four gentler, more lyrical interludes that follow, sung alternately by the O’Neill and the Finnish mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi, were all performed with great character and attention to detail. Paasikivi’s diction, in particular, was remarkable, dwelling at length on the consonants without sacrificing anything in terms of line. In the final, monumental song, Der Abschied (the farewell), her performance rose gradually in intensity, weaving in and out of the complex yet transparent orchestration, until the extraordinary peroration, Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen! (Everywhere the distances glow with blue light); that passage which famously Kathleen Ferrier couldn’t sing without breaking down in tears. Well, Paasikivi didn’t break down, but there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience at the end of the concert. It was unspeakably moving, one of the finest performances of this wonderful piece that I have ever heard.

And I am already looking forward to December in Melbourne, when Simone Young is scheduled to conduct Bruckner’s 9th and the second act duet from Parsifal. Not to be missed.

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Conductor Simone Young

Venue: Concert Hall, QPAC
Date: 16 July 2016