Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Majestic Manchester Mahler 3

Gustav Mahler - currently celebrated in Manchester

Gustav Mahler - currently celebrated in Manchester

The Halle set a very high standard with Mahler’s Second Symphony a couple of weeks back (you’ll need to scroll down 5 posts should you want to see comments). So the BBC Philharmonic faced quite a challenge with the Third, another epic soundscape with a passionate philosophical programme behind it.

But they proved equal to the task, and if the Third didn’t send us out quite as dazed and elated as its predecessor, it was mainly because this symphony, though just as complex, is more contemplative, a slower-paced work with quieter dynamics relying more or mood and melody than on stark contrasts and shattering climaxes.

Vassily Sinaisky took the first movement, with its resounding opening fanfare on the horns representing the great god Pan arriving to reanimate nature after the winter, at a steady but not rapid pace – very much the approach Stenz used last time for the opening of the Second. The brass section was superb throughout, playing with resonance and precision. Just as well because in every movement the brass has vital thematic parts to play, most often to remind us, in some way, of that opening motif of descending horn notes. The first movement as a whole gave an experience of restrained power, deep strings sporadically throbbing and surging, with the brass and the more fragile, fragmentary woodwind floating over the top.

Here’s an extract from the movement (LSO, splendidly conducted by Valery Gergiev, looking more than ever like Boris Karloff):

Mahler’s idea for the symphony was to make it ‘a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world…In my symphony the whole of nature finds a voice.’ The movements aim to layer one tier of being on top of another. The orchestra gave second movement (originally titled ‘What the flowers tell me’) a light, almost staccato touch and brought out the exuberant, dance-like qualities of the third (‘What the animals of the forest tell me’, according to Mahler’s early notes). The distant horns (how Mahler loves those!) sounded here like a faint reminder of the world of men, rather thanan eruption of the animalistic Pan.

Reaching ‘Night’ and the world of men, the 4th movement, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill got her entrance exactly right: the voice seemed to emerge and radiate without an identifiable starting-point, simply welling up out of the orchestral sound, as if uttered by the universe as well as by humanity. This lovely setting of the mysertious Nietzsche poem was a delight.

Mahler’s gentle audacity is astounging and wonderful: having begun the symphony with Pan, then led on to Nietzsche (who loathed Christianity), he then dances into the fifth movement with a children’s folksong – it sounds almost like a skipping game – about Jesus, St Peter, and God’s forgiveness. And every so often what sounds like a reminiscence of a Bach choral sweeping in to underline the religious elements. The CBSO Youth Chorus made a fine job of the children’s chorus, vigorous and precise, entering with the ‘Bimm bamm…’ of the church bells. Personally I would have liked a bit more volume from them, and I suspect Sinaisky held them back a bit too much; but it wasn’t a major blemish.

The transition to the sixth movement made me see something I’d missed before, listening to the symphony endlessly on disc, which is that having brought Christianity and Gid into the structure, Mahler goes a step further and higher. Where the 2nd symphny ends in song, it’s as if he now sees that words aren’t enough and nothing but pure music will say what he has to say. We’ve gone beyond God too, beyond anything that can be formulated or imagined.

The final movement was wonderful, with that sense of endlessly-shifting and changing and evolving harmonies as Mahler finds his way very slowly through a vast musical mist, drawing notes out and mutating the harmonies so that you constantly find a chord emerging that’s different from the one you expected, and then that melds into yet another and so on. Sinaiski did a good job with the dynamics here, very slowly building and building the movement until all the layers came together in those vast closing chords that show you the whole imaginable cosmos towering up octave above octave, layer above layer, energised and tranquil but completely alive, like a vast wall of glass or water that doesn’t topple but just settles and poises there, with the brass finally folding harmoniously into the picture and the timpani slowly repeating deep notes that echo the bell-chimes of the children’s song. The combination of energy and peace at the end of the symphony was very impressive. Here’s a clip (Dudamel, La Scala Philharmonic):

I didn’t cry this time (though the girl next to me was in tears throughout the final movement). There’s less melodrama, more serenity in this than in the Second Symphony, but the vision is vaster. Maybe Sinaiski didn’t always make the dynamics as exciting as he might have done. I overheard one departing audience member talking about the difficulty of staying awake, in a way that made me wonder if the work is just too big and complicated to grasp until you’ve heard it over and over again and got all those details into your system. The applause was loud and long but it didn’t really match the reaction to No 2.

Certainly I notice these days how closely-integrated the Third is. The pattern – melodic and rhythmic – of that opening fanfare, for example, comes into just about everything in the work. Sometimes I think Mahler 3 has an entire symphony for its first movement, and a whole other one for its last, with a suite of other things in between. Then again I find myself thinking the entire work is a single movement. The first time you hear it, it’s a sprawl. By the tenth time, you just notice the mind-boggling precision with which it’s all integrated. Very strange. But how wonderful to hear these masterpieces one after another, so well-played. Not sure yet if I’ll make the Fourth on Thursday. Lorraine’s Rueda class at Cuba Cafe is calling, and Amanda is able to dance again now her broken arm has healed. A dilemma. But I’ll post something as soon as I get to another Mahler extravaganza. Meanwhile there’s always salsa and a million other things.
And don’t forget: starting 5 April, BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the entire series on consecutive Monday nights at 7 pm. Listen to any you missed and see if you agree with me! And do post your comments.

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