Three Choirs Festival 2011 (4) – A memorable Mahler performance from the Philharmonia and Susanna Mälkki

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler; Symphony No 3 in D minor Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Ladies of the Festival Chorus, Choristers of the Three Cathedral Choirs, Philharmonia Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki. Worcester Cathedral. 8.8.2011 (JQ)

As we filed out at the end of this concert the gentleman who had been sitting next to me and with whom I’d been chatting enquired how I would begin this review. “With the ending”, I replied. Let me explain. Mahler’s Third Symphony has a loud, majestic ending, which at the Proms, for example, habitually results in an immediate eruption of cheering and clapping. Not here. Instead, as the last great chord died away in Worcester Cathedral there was…..silence! For several seconds there was no applause or even movement from the capacity audience. This in no way implied lack of appreciation – as the very enthusiastic ovation eventually proved. Rather, I think we were all unwilling to break the spell cast by the marvellous performance we had just heard. This, in my view, showed an even deeper respect for the music and for the quality of the performance than the loudest ovation could have done.

Last year the Three Choirs marked the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth with an exceptionally fine performance of his ‘Resurrection’ Symphony (review) under an excellent guest conductor. For this performance of the Third, to mark the centenary of the composer’s death, another guest conductor was invited and Susanna Mälkki proved to be as inspired a choice as had been Jac van Steen last year. I’ve not seen Miss Mälkki conduct before but I was impressed from the start. She eschews a baton and her beat and gestures reminded me of Pierre Boulez, though she is more animated and energetic than the great French conductor. I understand that she’s made quite a reputation as a conductor of contemporary music and this Boulez-like style is similar to that which I’ve seen adopted by several conductors who specialise in music of our time. Such conductors, of necessity, often have to give many cues and beat a series of rapidly changing meters. Certainly there was no shortage of cues to players from Miss Mälkki and her style, though perhaps a little unconventional, was very clear and dynamic without being ostentatious. I also liked the way she frequently smiled at the musicians. Here, I thought, was a conductor who knew what she wanted, was able to communicate her vision of the piece, and enjoyed the results. I wonder also if her experience of contemporary music came to bear in terms of the clarity of ensemble that she achieved.

It was evident from the start of the vast first movement, when the Philharmonia’s nine horns rang out in splendid unison, that we were likely to be in for a thrilling performance and so it proved to be. Mahler’s first movement is cast on a huge scale – it lasted some thirty two minutes on this occasion – and there’s a danger that, if not properly controlled, it will either sprawl or seem episodic – or both! Miss Mälkki had the measure of the piece and held it together expertly, her tempi judiciously chosen. It helped, I’m sure, that the Philharmonia was on top form, both collectively and individually – in this movement and elsewhere in the symphony there was much excellent solo work to admire from the wind and brass principals and from leader Maya Iwabuchi. Inevitably, pride of place in the first movement goes to the principal trombonist, whose extended solos are such an important feature. These solos were impressively delivered by, I think, Byron Fulcher. Much of his solo playing was distinguished by generously-toned power but at times, especially towards the end of his final solo passage, he was able to demonstrate great finesse when playing more softly. With splendid playing all round, both in the imposing loud passages and in the many stretches of more delicate music, the Philharmonia did full justice to Mahler’s dramatic and kaleidoscopic scoring.

I loved the lightness of touch that Miss Mälkki and the players brought to the second movement. This presents a great – and very necessary – contrast to the first movement. For the most part the music is delicate and innocent and requires pointed, alert playing. That’s what we got in a charming reading.

The lightness was carried over into much of the third movement, which contained one of the highlights of this performance. The celebrated post horn solos were played off stage on a flugelhorn. The player, who, by rights, should have been credited separately in the programme, delivered these taxing solos absolutely superbly and with enviable control. His tone was lovely – and just right – as was his dynamic range and the fact that he was placed at a distance and out of sight added to the magical atmosphere. These passages, accompanied beautifully by the orchestra, had just the nostalgic air that Mahler suerly desired. The performance of this movement combined nostalgia and earthiness in a winning combination.

In the fourth movement soloist Catherine Wyn-Rogers sang from the heart of the choir behind the orchestra. She was thus at quite a distance from the audience but so excellent was her projection that she could have been standing right next to the conductor. Her expressive and warm-toned singing was everything that we have long come to expect from this fine singer and the refined accompaniment from the orchestra distilled a very potent atmosphere. Placing Miss Wyn-Rogers in this position on the platform was absolutely the right thing to do, not least because it meant that her solo line in the fifth movement could emerge very naturally from amidst the boys and ladies of the choir. These singers, all singing from memory, produced a lovely – and lively – fresh sound in a delightful account of the brief fifth movement.

From it emerged the great adagio finale. The soft playing of the Philharmonia strings at the start was rapt. As the movement was patiently unfolded by Susanna Mälkki the concentration of the players was palpable. The orchestral playing was dedicated and refined. The conductor’s sense of line was very impressive and the climaxes, when they occurred, grew logically and inevitably. Through some twenty-five minutes Miss Mälkki built a compelling musical structure. At several points I was reminded that another great Mahler adagio finale – that of the Ninth Symphony – lay only a few years in the future. The last few minutes, in radiant, majestic D major, had a genuine grandeur and capped an enormously impressive and distinguished reading of this symphony. My colleague, Jim Pritchard, was seriously underwhelmed by Gustavo Dudamel’s performance of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony at the Proms last week (review). I venture to suggest that Jim, who knows his Mahler, would have enjoyed this Three Choirs performance of the Third a lot more. This, it seemed to me, was The Real Thing.  I think it was quite a coup for the Three Choirs to engage Susanna Mälkki. I hope we shall have another opportunity to experience her conducting in this part of the world before too long.

One final comment. I should congratulate the choir not just on their singing but also on their platform deportment. They sat throughout most of the one hundred minutes of this performance and one was scarcely aware of their presence except when they sang, which is no mean feat. But even more impressive was the manner in which they sat down after their singing was over. This was about a minute into the finale, when the music was still very soft. I can’t recall ever seeing a choir sit down so unanimously and unobtrusively. I know from personal experience that it’s not easy to sit down on tiered staging and these singers deserved everyone’s thanks for not distracting the audience in any way. So even when they weren’t singing the choir made an important contribution to a memorable concert.

John Quinn