The distinguished Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky has had a career spanning over half a century, but is not regularly associated with Mahler.
As the 76 year old conductor made his way slowly to the podium to conduct Mahler’s Third Symphony, I was unsure what to expect.
It turned out to be an outstanding performance of the work.
Rozhdestvensky illuminated every aspect of Mahler’s complex conception with a consistency which has eluded many conductors better known in this music. Standing in front of the podium, rather than on it, and using his trademark long baton, Rozhdestvensky brought forth playing of enormous eloquence from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The opening of the symphony, a striking theme for eight unison horns, immediately commanded attention. Mahler’s original title for the first movement, one of the longest in the symphonic repertoire, was Summer marches in.
Although Mahler later dropped the subtitle, the music nevertheless conveys impressions of the elemental force of nature, of new life bursting forth, and of summer triumphing over winter. The ‘nature’ element in Mahler’s music, conveyed by effects such as eerie brass glissandi, rumblings in the timpani and bird calls by the piccolo, was superbly conveyed by the orchestra. Sometimes these effects can seem merely cinematic, but under Rozhdestvensky’s baton the performance transcended mere instrumentation and Mahler’s vision was conveyed with a riveting intensity.
In terms of individual contributions, the orchestra leader, Boris Garlitsky, provided passionate playing in his many violin solos, and the first trumpet, Paul Beniston provided a notable contribution, as did the various percussionists. Most impressive of all were the two mournful trombone solos played by Mark Templeton. The movement as a whole benefitted strongly from the firm grasp of architecture and steady pacing provided by Rozhdestvensky.
After the drama of the first movement, the relaxed minuet which forms the second movement can often feel inconsequential. As if conscious of this, Rozhdestvensky provided a pause of nearly a minute before continuing the performance. Despite this, and some spirited orchestral playing, the second movement seemed somewhat overshadowed by the first.
The third movement, originally entitled What the animals of the forest tell me, is based on one of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs, Ablsung im sommer. Rozhdestvensky’s initial tempo was swift, with delightfully rustic woodwinds and some appropriately raucous brass playing. The nostalgic offstage flugelhorn solo was beautifully played by Brian Thompson and, supported by luminous strings, the effect was magical.
The fourth movement is often a weak point in performances of the Third Symphony. Not so here. Despite being placed with the choir behind the orchestra, mezzo soprano Petra Lang provided a deeply expressive performance of Nietzsche’s Midnight Song, her voice majestically filling the hall. Horns, woodwind and strings provided a rapt, haunting accompaniment. The oboe part was performed without the glissandi effect which has become common over recently years. Lang was equally impressive in the short fifth movement, What the morning bells tell me. With radiant singing from the women of the London Philharmonic Choir and the Tiffin Boys Choir, the performance of this movement was full of life and character.
As impressive as the performance of the symphony had been up to this point, the finale, entitled What love tells me, triumphed all that had gone before. Maintaining a very slow tempo, Rozhdestvensky drew from the London Philharmonic a luminous, glowing performance full of spiritual rapture. The playing of the strings was especially moving, the players’ faces revealing a complete involvement in the music. The movement’s anguished climaxes were delivered with great intensity and, as grandeur finally triumphed over doubt, Rozhdestvensky provided a noble climax, the intensity sustained to the last note.
It was a measure of the audience’s involvement in the music that the coughing which can be so conspicuous in the Royal Festival Hall was almost non existent throughout the 105 minute span of the symphony. In addition to the well deserved appreciation for Rozhdestvensky and the other performers, there was additional applause for Celia Chambers, Principle Flute, who was retiring after 25 years with the LPO.