Coming in at just under 100 minutes, and containing six movements, Mahler’s 3rd Symphony is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and it would be wrong to deny that there is a certain unwieldiness to the work, but despite that it contains some of Mahler’s most original and compelling music and in a performance as exciting as this the pluses far outweigh the minuses.
In order for this monumental symphony to make an impact you need an elite orchestra and a conductor who has the ability to shape this colossal work into a coherent whole. Although there was a sense of disappointment that the orchestra’s chief conductor Riccardo Chailly had to withdraw due to a wrist injury earlier in the summer, his replacement, Alan Gilbert, was certainly no ‘second best’.
Conducting from memory, his interpretation certainly eschewed the lack of bombast that had made the late Claudio Abbado’s performance at the Proms some years’ back so revelatory. Needless to say there are many ways to interpret Mahler’s symphonies and by and large what Gilbert achieved certainly ticket all the boxes as far as I was concerned.
Tempos were generally on the swift side, especially in the first movement, yet there was clarity of texture in every bar and he certainly had the unwieldy structure of the entire symphonic span within his grasp. Mahler often interspersed the grotesque and banal within his symphonies and here Gilbert allowed the vulgar marching band snippets their chance to shine. Despite the occasional fluffed entry and cracked note from the brass (tiredness, as they’ve had a hectic touring schedule this summer?) the fact that this particular orchestra is one of the finest was never in doubt.
There was a glorious sheen to the string sound, whilst the woodwind met all the fearsome demands that Mahler makes of them with consummate skill and ease. Special praise must go to principal oboist Thomas Hipper whose solo contributions, particularly in the second and fourth movements, were deftly handled, and beautifully realised.
Similarly in the third movement, one of Mahler’s most inspired, Lukas Beno’s offstage playing of the Posthorn transfixed an otherwise less than attentive audience. Ethereal, magical and poignant, Beno’s playing was truly mesmerising.
With the superb German mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger bringing the perfect blend of gravitas and pathos to the hushed incantations from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, filling the Hall with her gloriously burnished tone, the epic conclusion to this great work began on a sure footing. With the gleeful ‘bimm-bamms’ from the children’s choir blending with the alert ladies’ chorus, their exuberance paved the way for the most sublime opening of the final movement with the strings providing a glorious cushion of sound that eventually gave way to a no-holds barred climax. Too brash? Possibly, but the sight of timpanists Marek Stefula and Tom Greenleaves thrashing their way through the closing bars provided the sort of visceral thrill that’s far too rare in the concert hall. All in all, despite the occasional fluff, this was a superb performance by an outstanding orchestra.
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