Monday, 9 April 2018

ELIAHU INBAL. MAHLER 6 / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (6 April 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 April 2018 with the title "Thrilling ride from start to finish". 

Here was another single-symphony concert, and no surprise about the composer: Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). The Singapore Symphony Orchestra had opened the year with Mahler's Seventh Symphony led by Shui Lan, and this evening saw Mahler's Sixth Symphony directed by eminent Israeli conductor Eliahu Inbal.

If his name sounded familiar, that was because at his last SSO concert in March 2015, the performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony was dedicated to the memory of Lee Kuan Yew. Poignancy, loss and regret were expressed in the music, and tonight’s symphony, sometimes known as “The Tragic”, was to ratchet up emotions many more notches.

Despite being 82 this year, Inbal has the sprightly steps of one half his age. This was evident in the 1st movement's funeral match, not a slow trudge like in earlier symphonies but one taken at a vehement and relentless beat. Percussion including two timpanists and snare drum led the urgently martial way, contrasted by a pristine woodwind chorale and sweeping “love theme” sung by strings.

This made for a volatile clash, of impending tragedy tempered by love, all through the opening movement's invigorating half-hour. Finer details were also savoured, including a quiet section with splendid solos from Han Chang Chou's French horn and Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich's violin. They were exemplary, and how they also marshalled their respective sections (the eight French horns were simply magnificent) at many key points in the symphony.

The obsessive, menacing pulse continued into the Scherzo, with short departures into a waltz-like rhythm, as if reliving some demented dancing. Here the raucousness and rawness were deliberate, a backward glance at the Austrian composer's more rustic and earthy Bohemian roots. 

This “ugliness” was balanced by some of the most refined playing in the tender and lyrical slow movement, building to a passionate climax, with four pairs of cowbells joining the fray. Its brevity, although regrettable, was in preparation for the lengthy and tumultuous finale, forming almost a mirror image of the symphony's opening.

Mahler and his daughters in 1905.

Inbal's seemingly endless energy and resources ensured a thrilling ride from uplifting opening to desperate end. The listener being led through an emotional wringer, would have expected final victory and redemption as denouement. In this symphony, however, exhilaration was short-lived, felled by strategically placed sledgehammer blows.

Associate principal percussionist Mark Suter was given the honour of delivering the coup de grace, and his execution was perfect – how the sonorous wooden crate literally bounced! Mahler superstitiously removed the third hammer blow, but the end result would not alter Destiny. He and a daughter would be dead within a few years.

The sheer visceral response afforded by orchestra and conductor was reflected by the audience. There was silence followed by vociferous applause. This was music to induce heart attacks, perhaps the very reason why people still sit through 85-minute “live” symphonies in preference to the comfort of playing records at home. 

The magnificent French horn section.
Eliahu Inbal thanks
Igor Yuzefovich and Zhang Manchin.

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