I am still processing what was witnessed in this concert. In a rare appearance from the Prague Symphony, a blazing performance by anyone’s standards of the 3rd Symphony by Mahler.
This is the longest symphony in the standard orchestral repertoire (a whopping 100 minutes). It’s an odd work by any ones standards, clogged with weird yet wonderful ideas and motifs. Though not as accessible as his previous, sizeable symphonic offering, ‘The Resurrection’, the majesty delivered within his 3rd has arguably no other rival. You only need to know that Mahler was on the threshold of modernity in music, on the cusp of the new century (this was written in 1896). Stories of Mahler’s life are well-known with illness, bereavement and affairs, though the grip on his art remains an inspiring fact.
At times, maestro Pietari Inkinen hardly seemed to do anything at all. Though when you watch people like Leonard Bernstein conduct the same work (let’s not forget his commitment to getting the public into Mahler’s music) you might forget how others enact the score. Though with a performance this polished, Inkinen made the musicians glow in all of the six movements. You can count on Mahler to have multiple mood swings, with Austrian folk songs or depictions of Alpine landscapes, juxtaposed with a moody anguish and over the top, fever dream moments of tutti.
There are plenty of highlights heard in this. A horn played within the audience is an achingly sentimental section, interrupting the jolly Scherzo twice. It evokes a deeply rooted nostalgia and is hard not to feel this pang both times it’s heard. An off stage drum roll is another brief listen, with a percussionist darting off stage to make the cue, then returning when done. The army of brass and woodwind is a sight to behold, the former making their mark in blast after blast throughout. The woodwind has birdsong and more idyllic sounds, soothing in moments of rest bite.
A hallmark of this symphony is the patient voices who emerge in the fourth and fifth movements, breaking up the orchestral focus. Like the symphonies before and after the 3rd, Mahler uses singers sparingly, though to great effect. Here Czech mezzo Ester Pavlů instantly halts proceedings with a profound voice. The words of Nietzsche and his Midnight Song are unbearably set here in an intensely quiet and profound experience for singer and the strings. “The world is deep, and deeper than the day imagined.” is a translated extract, something to ponder for days after. Pavlů heralds from a family of rock musicians, yet we are so glad she chose a classical career. With a sumptuous voice like that, how could she not?
The huge tonal shift of the fifth movement for her and the choirs, along with woodwind and percussion tries to cheer you up after such a dower time. This sees the story of Saint Peter making it to heaven, even after disobeying god’s commandments, thanks to the forgiveness of Christ. This has a Christmas feel to it thanks to the glockenspiel and the “binging” and “bonging” of the children’s choir and female singers, joyful in their saccharine merriment. Cardiff Metropolitan Cathedral Choir, Cardiff Bach Choir and Swansea Bach Choir all stood up to the mark and gave a brief few minutes of “cheerful” and “cheeky expression” as the composer had intended had intended.
The crowing achievement is the final movement. Pulling back the focus to just the orchestra, we witness perhaps Mahler’s finest musical creation. This is an unbridled, soaring flight into the perception of humanity and the universe. This could easily be a piece to perform on it’s own, yet it is the huge journey that we go on that rewards us with this impeccable music. A section for brass has tricky high notes and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that section without feeling the struggle of the players, one of many demands the piece calls for. I remained quivering wreck throughout this. Even both timpani players seemed to have a real good time in the last few bars in their tonic dominance, ritualistic in execution, transcendence in listening.
One of the finest concerts the Welsh capital has been blessed with all year.
The International Concert Series continues at St David’s Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra on 27th November 2019. Conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, featuring violinist Sayaka Shoji, with music by Brahms and Sibelius.
Photo Credit: St David’s Hall Website