Journey from vulgarity to sublime

The Guinness Book of World Records once listed Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony In D Minor as the longest symphony ever written.

It has since been surpassed by Havergal Brian's rarely performed Gothic Symphony, but at more than 100 minutes and in six movements, it remains the unsurpassed titan of the regular orchestral repertoire.

Even the term regular is relative, as this was only the second performance in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's (SSO) 37-year history.

The Singapore premiere took place in 2007, when the newly formed Singapore Symphony Children's Choir made its debut.



    Singapore Symphony Orchestra

    Esplanade Concert Hall

    Last Saturday

Conducted again by SSO music director Shui Lan, this perfor- mance showed that both orchestra and chorus had made considerable progress over the intervening years.

One might even conclude that the SSO has become a great Mahler orchestra.

Eight French horns boldly declared the first in a series of fanfares in the opening movement, a statement of intent that was to distinguish the evening's work.

Under Shui's firm guiding hand, the sprawling movement that was itself longer than most Mozart and Beethoven symphonies did not come across as a string of unrelated episodes.

Instead, the music flowed through its progression of marches, with brass, winds and percussion in full throttle.

Allen Meek's solo trombone led the procession and the relentless pursuit of perfection was infectious, all the way through to tumultuous climax and dramatic close.

The second and third movements were shorter and lighter, with dance-like rhythms possessed with a rusticity that deliberately bordered on the provincial.

A fairy tale-like atmosphere gave way to more earthy vibes with Jon Paul Dante's offstage trumpet solo, sure and unwavering, being the pivotal key.

All this apparent light-heartedness was, characteristic of the Bohemian composer, tinged with a sense of menace and macabre.

If the first three movements gloried in the banal and commonplace, the next three were preoccupied with the spiritual and eternal.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke's mellow and reassuring rendering of O Mensch! Gib Acht! (O Man! Take Heed!) from Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra stood apart from the earlier rumblings.

She was later joined by women from the Singapore Symphony Chorus (Lim Yau, choral director) and Singapore Symphony Children's Choir (Wong Lai Foon, choirmaster) in the celestial Es Sungen Drei Engel (Three Angels Sang), which sparkled like gold dust.

The journey of transformation from vulgarity to the sublime was completed in the long-breathed finale.

Had Mahler written a better Adagio (marked Langsam in the score) than this? Ethereal strings took over, from its pianissimo beginnings and building up arch-like to final fruition.

There were unexpected touches too, such as Jin Ta's sinuous flute appearing from nowhere or concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich's exquisite violin solo standing tall against a brass chorale.

Conducting completely from memory, Shui's interpretation has to be one of the great Mahler performances in living memory here.

The audience, in stark contrast with the one that greeted the Israel Philharmonic just a week ago, was impeccably behaved.

Respectfully quiet between movements, it erupted with a chorus of bravos and a prolonged standing ovation at the end.

This audience came here for the music and its faith was justly reciprocated. There is hope for classical music here, after all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'Journey from vulgarity to sublime'. Print Edition | Subscribe