It's hard to explain. But something of a miracle occurred on the stage of Roy Thomson Hall Thursday night. Canadian soprano Simone Osborne was just wrapping up the final movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, which is a setting of a song Mahler had written several years earlier. "The Heavenly Life" extolls the virtues of heaven seen from the perspective of a child. Mahler had chosen this song to end his symphony, and wrote three enormous movements – almost an hour of music – to build to this child-like embrace of eternal life.
But, on Thursday, Osborne didn't just sing that song, it's as though she became the song, that hers was the voice that had created the entire symphony. It felt as though the 80-odd musicians on stage were somehow emanations of her and her musical presence, so thoroughly did she inhabit the music she was singing. Even though Osborne is on stage for a mere fraction of the symphony's duration, it was as though she had been there the entire evening, as though we had been hearing her somehow make the symphony's music.
Osborne's mini-miracle capped a superb performance of the Mahler by the TSO and guest conductor Michael Sanderling. The Fourth is unlike Mahler's other symphonies – it doesn't shout, blare or hammer home its message. It's gentler, quieter, more peaceful. That's not to say there aren't intensely dramatic moments in the Fourth, and if Sanderling underplayed some of those moments in his smooth, well-paced, well-balanced reading, he made up for it by keeping the musical thread clear throughout the symphony's labyrinthine twists and turns. Mahler gives you plenty of opportunities to get lost in his complex, multi-faceted score. Sanderling was seduced by none of them – his musical conception of the work was steady and compelling.
Sanderling also coaxed fine performances from the first-rate musicians of the TSO. Mahler writes very exposed parts, especially for his wind players, who stand musically naked for much of the work. The proud TSO wind players never flinched from the exposure, and were uniformly excellent, especially principal horn Neil Deland, and principal oboe Sarah Jeffrey. Sanderling balanced the TSO strings beautifully and kept the 90-odd-member band in tight focus for the entire performance.
Simone Osborne appeared with the orchestra in two arias in the first half of the program, Dvorak's famous Song to the Moon from Rusalka, and Charpentier's equally well-known Depuis le jour. Her clear, soaring,well-phrased soprano managed to provide both with real power.
The orchestra alone began the concert with Richard Strauss's Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome. Strauss and Mahler were contemporaries and friends. Musical history esteems them both equally – although on this evening, one might wonder why. Mahler 4 was sublime; Strauss's high-class striptease act a bit exploitative and frankly, a bit boring.
The TSO repeats the program on Saturday at 8 p.m. (tso.ca).