Mahler’s Sixth

ARTS, Music

In the age of the sub-four-minute song, listening to the work of Gustav Mahler presents a special challenge. His Sixth Symphony (Auckland Town Hall, August 20), performed recently to a sell-out crowd by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, weighs in at around ninety minutes, with both the first and last movements individually as long as many complete symphonies.

But the potentially transcendent experience of Mahler’s music is such that it is a challenge both orchestras and audiences are willing to take up. In March, the Third Symphony (a work of ‘such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world’, Mahler wrote) was performed by the NZSO at this year’s Auckland Festival, while the so-called ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (the Eighth) will be performed with Vladimir Ashkenazy at next year’s International Arts Festival in Wellington.

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, known as the ‘Tragic Symphony’, was written in 1904, and it is a work that sits uneasily between the Romantic and the Modern, wearing its turn-of-the-century character on its sleeve. The tragedy of the work’s nickname refers to the three hammer blows ‘of fate’ that are played in the final movement, three moments that (it has been said) prophetically reflects three events in Mahler’s life that followed: the death of his daughter, the loss of his job, and the diagnosis of the heart condition that would kill him. It’s a work that runs the gamut of emotional terrain, ending, eventually, with an unequivocal bleakness.

The Symphony is large not just in a temporal sense: the orchestra is impressively augmented to over 100 players, with numerous New Zealand Symphony Orchestra players shipped in for this performance. With six trumpets, eight horns, and a weighty collection of percussionists, there’s an increased dynamic and dramatic potential that is evident from the march-dominated first movement. Here, as throughout much of the Symphony, the strings carry the weight, and in the APO’s performance the strings were more than up to the task. Trumpeter Brent Grapes and oboist Bede Hanley impressed as soloists, while the timpani and off-stage cowbells (one of Mahler’s innovative touches of colour that ground the work) were rather too prominent.

An especial challenge posed by this Symphony is the sheer rapidity of tempo change, and this requires careful handling by the conductor. Eckehard Stier was adventurous with tempo from the outset. It was an approach that caused considerable excitement at times but was problematic at others, and no more so than in the second movement Scherzo. In this performance there were sections so languid it felt like the piece could grind to a halt, and in spite of the very fine playing, particularly from the celli, this sluggishness threatened to undo the musical argument.

The yearning third movement Andante moderato is a world away the surrounding movements, both in terms of key and temperament, and it was performed with great sensitivity, with impressive solos from Nicola Baker on horn and many woodwind players.

The fourth movement Allegro moderato opened a little lethargically, but again was redeemed with the admirable fast tempi. In this movement the brass play a number of important roles, and the playing was sufficiently powerful and sensitive in turn, while the collective stamina of the entire string section was evident. The real feature of this movement is the hammer blows that Mahler wanted to sound ‘like the stroke of an axe’, and in this performance, these were skillfully executed by percussionist Tim Borton wielding a 1.5 metre wooden hammer that bordered on the visually absurd. But this did not detract from the impact of these blows that interrupted the building waves of orchestral energy and which were only outdone by the utterly devastating final fortissimo minor chord.