Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor is a work of monumental proportions and whilst it may not require the kind of forces that his 2nd or 8th symphonies require, its length (the longest single symphonic span in the repertoire at just under two hours) demands a different set of skills, namely attention to detail and an overarching sense of the music’s architecture on the part of the conductor.
Donald Runnicles, conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony, certainly kept an iron grip on this leviathan of a symphony and he was rewarded with playing of a consistently high standard throughout the two hours – but it’s testament to his innate pacing of the music that those two hours flew by. The first movement had colossal guts and drive, from the opening motif in the horns to the quietest beat on the drum, Runnicles made sure that the musical texture remained pellucid throughout its half-hour length.
After the tempestuous first movement, there was plenty of delicate woodwind detail in a lovingly-sculptured and lilting minuet, which gave way to a wonderfully ardent Scherzando which was full of bite where required, and again the contributions from the wind soloists was exemplary as was principal trumpet Mark O’Keeffe’s offstage interjections that added another level of spatial drama to the proceedings.
Although the audience took too long to quieten down before the sublime fourth movement, Runnicles’ patience paid off as the hushed opening to this dark and foreboding section of the work was as mesmeric and other worldly as it should be when Karen Cargill (the superb mezzo-soprano) soloist opened with the words ‘O Mensch! Gib acht! (O Man! Take heed!)’ you could have heard a pin drop, indeed her incantation of the text by Nietzsche was the highlight of the evening. There were robust contributions from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus (women’s voices) and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus which concluded the movement.
Runnicles brought the work to a thrilling climax with a judiciously paced sixth movement and although he could have pulled out the stops more towards the close, this was still a mighty achievement and a more than worthy addition to this year’s Mahler celebrations.