Nott conducts Poulenc and Mahler with something of the night about them.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
October 29, 2014

Poulenc and Mahler may not sound like typical bedfellows but as last night’s concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Nott demonstrated  that they sometimes have more in common than one might think. Colour and light were common factors at least in an intriguing program coupling a pair of works often considered ‘tricky’ with respect to each composer’s most typical output.

Poulenc’s 1938 Organ Concerto is without doubt one of his most sublime and profound utterances. Scored for the highly original and imaginative combination of organ, strings and timpani, it’s by turns dramatic, reflective and, contrary to those who see only the gloom of tormented Catholicism at work here, at times it’s attractively playful.

The drama was evident from the start with David Drury conjuring up a full-fat ‘Phantom of the Opera’ wallop from the Sydney Opera House organ. There was plenty of baroque majesty, with regular nods to Poulenc’s predecessor JS Bach. The reflective moments were beautifully realised, the SSO violins especially sweet toned, and there was some lovely duetting between Drury and Tobias Breider’s solo viola.

The playfulness emerged in the first allegro with its almost cartoon chase quality exhibiting the joie de vivre of Poulenc at his most saucy. At other times we heard the Poulenc of the Carmelites – deep and dark – but the lively composer of the Gloria, and even the Puckish Concert Champêtre was never far away.

Drury’s performance was everything one could wish for – commanding and bold, yet spacious and delicate when required. Jonathan Nott was a sympathetic accompanist, teasing a lovely radiance from the SSO strings. Thanks to the unusual forces involved, this is one of those works invariably better in the concert hall than on record. Whoever’s idea it was to program it deserves a jolly good pat on the back.

Having heard Nott as self-effacing accompanist, the second half saw him take the foreground with a vengeance. Over the last decade, the British conductor has built an enviable Mahler reputation with his excellent Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, as evidenced by one of the classiest recorded cycles on the Tudor label, completed earlier this year. His no nonsense approach to this most Romantic of composers has received more plaudits than brickbats – the clarity of his vision tending to outweigh any concerns over lack of emotional heft. Knowing the thoughtfulness of Nott on record, I was curious to hear how this translates in the concert hall.

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony has a somewhat unfair reputation as a ‘difficult’ work. Its sprawling five-movement span with its emphasis on all things nocturnal precedes a surprise blaze of sunlight in the ebullient finale and is considered by some to be poorly balanced. Internal balance was clearly uppermost in Nott’s mind as he opted for divided violins left and right, placing violas with the firsts and cellos with the seconds.

A slow start, almost over-ponderous, saw some of Mahler’s initial ideas pulled up so short things threatened to fall apart. Fortunately, Nott’s scrupulous attention to orchestral sonority and the textbook clarity of his beat saw momentum build and things quickly settled in for the nightmare ride that is the massive first movement. The episodic nature was never allowed to feel as such in a performance notable for the homogenous beefy sound of the SSO in full flight. Scott Kinmont on thunderous tenor horn led the brass magnificently, and there were lovely solos on lead violin (Dene Olding) and viola (Tobias Breider). And yes, Nott allowed Mahler his romantic head when required.

The second movement – the first of Mahler’s Nachtmusiks – was a chance for horns and woodwind to shine. Nott was in his element, drawing out every ounce of colour and with a keen sense of rhythm and attention to mood change across Mahler’s ghostly, moon-drenched landscape. It was atmospheric stuff – skeletal pizzicati, spooky bird calls, gallows humour marches and that moment where our nocturnal traveller wanders into a cow field complete with its bell-laden occupants.

If you thought that was creepy, try the ensuing Scherzo with its gurglings and shriekings. Nott proved adept at rendering it in all its sketchy, bone-rattling details whilst whipping up its ghostly waltzes with almost Ravelian delight. This was Mahler at his most surprisingly French (with just a hint of Addams family).

After all that, the second Nachtmusik with its folksy guitar and mandolin (sadly not visible to most of the audience) and its ‘Viennesey’ strings was a welcome relief. The conductor maintained the childlike innocence of it all by keeping it moving along nicely, despite a tiny lapse in ensemble here and there.

That sense of urgency followed through into that ‘difficult’ finale, under Nott’s baton more bustle and less bombast than can sometimes seems the case. If the occasional inner detail got swallowed up in the heady rush and the concert hall acoustic then there was still plenty of incident to enjoy, plus a zestful sense of pace and energy. The brass, and particularly the trumpets, performed minor miracles here with some stratospheric playing (despite the fact that, after over an hour of Mahlerian hurdles, embrasures must have been aching). As the orchestra powered home complete with tubular bells and their bovine equivalents I half expected a plucky percussionist to stand up and bash the proverbial kitchen sink.

A bravura performance, then, and some crowd pleasing red-blooded Mahler, but call me an effete Francophile, it was the Poulenc that followed me out into the night air.

The concert is repeated on November 1 and 2.

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