Mahlers symphonies are such a ubiquitous presence in the concert hall that the anniversary of his birth in 2010 and the centenary of his death in 2011 dont seem to have resulted in any more performances than normal. On the other hand, it has afforded the opportunity to hear some of the symphonies that are scheduled less frequently due to their size and expense, notably the Third Symphony.
This symphony normally makes for a concert on its own, but Simon Rattle took advantage of having a choir present to programme with two songs in addition, both of which provided a foretaste of the work to come. The first was Brahmss Es tnt ein voller Harfenklang (The Full Tones of the Harp Resound), a lush setting for female chorus, two horns and a harp dating from 1860. The second was Wolfs Elfenlied, an 1888 setting of the fairies song from Act II of Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream for female chorus and soprano, the latter role affectionately sung by Anke Hermann.
During the lengthy first movement of the Third Symphony there were times when the corporate excellence of Berliner Philharmonikers approach threatened to tame the musics brooding power and bold originality, and some of the more atmospheric passages lacked tension. In compensation, the orchestras powerful ten double basses and some vivid timpani playing brought a strong sense of impetus to the movements march episodes, and it was difficult to resist the emotional thrust that Rattle brought to the exuberant conclusion.
One of the symphonys difficulties is the need for the performers to bring a consistency of purpose to six such highly contrasted movements, and the lightweight second is particularly difficult to bring off after such an original opening. Here Rattle and the orchestra were rather short on character and charm, and the glissandos for violas towards the end of the movement sounded unduly exaggerated. The third movement, based on Mahlers humorous Wunderhorn song Ablsung im Sommer, was more spirited, with excellent contributions from the woodwind players. The offstage posthorn solo was beautifully floated from backstage by Tams Velenczei with exemplary timing and balance a magical interpretation. What a pity that the last moments were spoilt by a cascade of coins falling from someones pocket and the sound of a mobile phone ringing.
Nathalie Stutzmanns contralto contribution to the fourth movement was ideally voiced, but the orchestral accompaniment could have been more rapt, and the oboe soloist didnt seem fully comfortable with Rattles trademark upward glissandos. The fifth movement, on the other hand, benefited from some fine singing by the ladies of The London Symphony Chorus and the BBC Singers and the boys of the Choir of Eltham College.
The Third Symphony concludes with one of the greatest adagios in all music. Rattles direction was notable for its unerring pacing and a careful attention to Mahlers dynamic markings, and the Berliners responded with playing of unsurpassed radiance and expressiveness. The result was intensely beautiful, but also surprisingly cool, rather like a brilliant white light observed at a great distance.
The audience gave the performance a standing ovation, but for all Rattles experience in this repertoire, Vladimir Jurowskis interpretation of the same symphony with the London Philharmonic last autumn was a much more involving occasion.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk