Lorin Maazel takes his audience on the Mahler trip of a lifetime

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, Symphony No.3: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Voices, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra; Lorin Maazel (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 8.5.2011. (JPr)

This was just one of those evenings when the world outside the concert hall – and even the immediate environment of my aisle seat – just seemed to fade away and I found myself transported – where I do not know but somewhere – beyond the conscious. Mahler composed this symphony several decades before the 1960’s Flower Power generation and its LSD with its hallucinogenic properties – I know nothing about these type of drugs (honestly!) but Mahler’s Third Symphony – as performed like this – must be the musical equivalent of the ‘trip’ of a lifetime. Just think about all these programmatic ideas Mahler originally had for the six movements (such as ‘What the meadow flowers tell me’, ‘What the creatures of the forest tell me’, ‘What love tells me’) and we are deep into the mindset of the hedonistic Age of Aquarius.

Much of the success was due to Lorin Maazel being seemingly reinvigorated by the 105-minute span of this symphony, the longest in the standard orchestra repertoire. At the end of the music as the magical coda of the last movement almost on its own transcended what had gone before, Maestro Maazel cued the long D major chord with such enthusiasm that it took both his 81-year-old feet up into the air. I marvelled throughout at the difference in this performance with one recently given by Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic; I recently commented how regimented Jurowski’s conducting was, but here – despite his reputation for taut control – I was surprised how thoughtful and flexible Maazel was: he brought an organic coherence to this highly episodic work. It also sounded very spontaneous and perhaps this is the case as I wonder how much rehearsing Maazel might actually do? In comparison it is clear from Jurowski’s conducting that if you heard him conducting the same piece twice it would sound exactly the same; with Maazel I doubt any two performances are that similar.

Maazel sees himself as merely the conduit through which Mahler can speak to us and he also benefits from being, as Mahler was, a ‘man of the theatre’. Clearly as he is also a considerable Wagner conductor, through this performance he compounded Julian Johnson’s programme note concerning Mahler’s ‘life-long devotion to the works of Richard Wagner, whose last music drama Parsifal (1882) was, at that time, still performed only at Bayreuth under quasi-religious conditions. Mahler’s Third Symphony thus grows out of an understanding of art as a kind of religious and philosophical quest’. It must also be remembered that Mahler had been to Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1883 and had commented ‘I can hardly describe my present state to you. When I came out of the Festspielhaus, completely spellbound, I understood that the greatest and most painful revelation had just been made to me, and that I would carry it unspoiled for the rest of my life’.

Conductors and many musicologists should ignore Wagner’s influence on Mahler at their peril, yet many seem to want to. As the Adagio finale unfolds towards its Schopenhauerian conclusion – where both the world and its earthly love is renounced – I marvelled at the Wagnerian sounds from the strings; the lower ones recalling Parsifal and the upper ones Lohengrin. The consoling D major hymn is made all the more poignant if you recall the words of the 1930’s song ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ and its composer, Sammy Fain, clearly lifted the tune’s first four lines from this movement. The tension built up in all that had gone before is resolved especially with the tremendous orchestral power unleashed – particularly through the Philharmonia’s unsurpassable brass – at the third climax. Mahler has brought us his vision of heaven and divine love in some heartrendingly beautiful passages that culminate in the wonderful coda whose impact here was indescribable and you just had to be there.

Although the best came last it would be too easy to dismiss the rest of the symphony and I am in danger doing that; throughout what the Philharmonia Orchestra achieved in this performance – while not absolutely perfect – was extraordinary. It was happily free of cliché and had an imposing and raw musical power; for me Maazel had a surprisingly modern approach, eschewing sentiment and nostalgia for something more structural and psychological. The opening horn calls of the long ‘Summer Marches In’ (Pan Awakes) opening movement led to the passages that soon established an ambience of Dionysian turmoil. Even when that mood broke the apparent architecture and forward momentum was always apparent. The ‘Flowers’ movement had a grace and charm all of its own, creating a wonderful sense of reverie for the audience. There was a tremendous show of virtuosity by all the orchestral players and some especially fine solo contributions throughout the symphony by their leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay.

In the third movement, Alistair Mackie’s refined posthorn passages further lulled the audience into a dreamworld that was indisputably Mahlerian and couldn’t have been composed by anyone else. He probably played a flugelhorn but it wasn’t that clear and Maazel had the ‘posthorn’ sounding more immediate than usual and it was the orchestra that created a spatial distance in the music. With the dissonant E-flat minor chord a sort of ironic climax is reached allowing a convincing transition into the ‘Midnight Song’. Sarah Connolly replaced the indisposed Christianne Stotijn but could not quell a rapid vibrato to make enough of ‘O Mensch, gib acht!’ Here the haunting screech of the night-bird called out appropriately through the hinaufziehen figure for the oboe. The Philharmonia Voices and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir took over for the short fifth movement and sang with a sweet angelic charm to set us up nicely for that memorable and deeply affecting Adagio.

Jim Pritchard