Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic Orchestra and Willoughby Symphony Choir, cond. Paul Terracini

Advance publicity for the Mahler 2 concert in Chatswood bordered on hyperventilation: Massive!, shrieked one headline, Colossal!, trumpeted another. Thankfully, the work does justify the hype: the second symphony is one of the composer’s most popular works, in this instance promising an orchestra of 90 musicians and a choir of 100 with two soloists, and at almost 90 minutes, one of the longest in the repertoire. I had often attended concerts in the Concourse before, albeit with smaller orchestras generally providing more modest fare, so I was keen to hear how well the Concourse Concert Hall’s much-vaunted acoustics would cope, particularly with the triumphant apocalyptic chorale, one of the most glorious and powerful climaxes in all of music. The symphony’s central theme is life and death, in particular, life after death. The first movement was originally named Totenfeier (Funeral Rites), a stormy symphonic poem to bear the hero of Mahler’s recently completed First Symphony to his grave. Five years later he composed the second and third movements of what was by then destined to be a large-scale symphony. The fourth movement, featuring mezzo-soprano or contralto soloist, employs a wunderhorn text concerning the struggle for faith. For the fifth, and last, movement, which adds soprano soloist and mixed chorus, Mahler found inspiration in the poem Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection) by Friederich Klopstock that he had heard at the funeral of Hans von Bülow. This was astonishing because a few years earlier when playing his new composition on piano to the famous conductor, he allegedly held his hands over his ears and said: “If that’s still music, then I do not understand anything about music.” In the original score of Resurrection, Mahler calls for a five-minute pause between the end of the first movement and the start of the second; conductor Paul Terracini chose to bring on the soloists at this point, and position them in front of the orchestra, a wise decision considering the large number and collective firepower of the assembled musicians. The maestro gave a brief explanation of the movements to follow, then we were off into the graceful and tender Andante moderato, recounting the story of the death and transcendent resurrection of the hero. The last three movements were played according to Mahler’s instructions without a pause, the third movement ending in a climax with, as the composer called it, a ‘death shriek’. Additional brass placed in the ‘Gods’ high above the orchestra added splendid clarity to the trumpets and horns. We then heard the ethereal voice of Celeste Haworth, mezzo-soprano, singing Urlicht (eternal light), and the very elaborate (and loud) last movement, which added soprano soloist Imogen-Faith Malfitano and mixed chorus using Biblical motifs to describe the hero’s journey to heaven. Given the wide dynamic range of this wonderful music, from whisper-quiet to thunderous finale, the Concert Hall itself ‘performed’ extremely well, delivering a memorable experience to those privileged to be present. Lewis Cornwell’s excellent informative notes in the printed program will have added much to the enjoyment of the audience.

Reviewed by David Ogilvie