PROM 73: Extraordinary Mahler Performance from Gilbert and Gewandhaus Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Prom 73 –  Mahler: Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano), Leipzig Opera and Gewandhaus Choir (women’s voices), Leipzig Gewandhaus Children’s Choir, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra / Alan Gilbert (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 11.9.2014. (JPr)

Prom 73 (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Mahler – Symphony No. 3 in D minor

It is clear looking around me that some people have no idea what they will be hearing until they sit down in the Royal Albert Hall. On this evening four people were picnicking between two parked cars just outside – as if it were Glyndebourne or Henley. Inside comments were heard such as ‘Don’t they look young? I hope they can sing’ about the Children’s Choir. And after the soloist stood up for the fourth movement the woman in front of me asked her companion ‘Is she singing in this?’ After this wonderful concert and on exiting the Royal Albert Hall the first thing I heard about Mahler’s 100minute Third Symphony was ‘It was long, wasn’t it?’ Factor in the way several people always seem to get up and leave during the music and their need to cough or applaud as soon as any movement ends, it makes the Proms audience a thing of continuing wonder. They were lucky conductor Alan Gilbert seemed to be in a good mood because he does have ‘previous’ incidents when he stopped some Mahler because of a ringing mobile phone. At this concert within a few bars of the first movement and at the start of the final one I heard the distant trilling of phones that were not previously silenced.

 Stephen Johnson in his programme note quite appositely explained about Mahler’s symphony that although the composer abandoned the subtitles he initially gave to the six movement ‘All the same, this should not be taken as meaning that Mahler wants us to hear the work as “absolute music”. There are elements in the Third Symphony that cry out for non-musical explanation – how else can we make sense of his choice of texts in the fourth and fifth movements? Clearly there is a message to be read, and it is more than helpful to know what Mahler’s thoughts were – after all, he does seem to have taken care to ensure that they were preserved for posterity.’ Unfortunately he then failed to elaborate on this.

 Mahler composed this symphony several decades before the 1960s Flower Power generation and LSD with its hallucinogenic properties, though he left us 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 flowers of the meadows tell me’, ‘What the animals of the forest tell me’, ‘What love tells me’) and we are deep into the mindset of that hedonistic drug-fuelled era.

 Stephen Johnson also forgot to mention about Mahler’s devotion to the works of Richard Wagner, whose last music drama Parsifal was – at the time of the Third Symphony’s composition – still performed only at Bayreuth because it was considered a quasi-religious work that should only be performed in a reverential way: Mahler’s music reflects this understanding of art as something of a religious and philosophical quest. He had been to Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1883 and 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 several musicologists ignore Wagner’s influence on Mahler at their peril … yet still do. As the Adagio finale unfolds towards its Schopenhauerian conclusion – where both the world and its earthly love is renounced – I always marvel 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’ – its composer, Sammy Fain, clearly lifted the tune’s first four lines from this movement. (That song was the anthem for British and American soldiers in World War II and Liberace’s theme music.) Under Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic (Mahler’s own orchestra for a short while), the tension which built up in all that had gone before was resolved especially with the tremendous orchestral power unleashed – particularly through the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s unsurpassable brass – at the third climax. Mahler brings us a vision of heaven and divine love through some heartrendingly passages that culminated in a beautifully played apotheosis.

What the Leipzigers achieved in this performance was extraordinary, they strove for perfection in a difficult venue with a problematic acoustic and almost achieved it. Alan Gilbert conducting without a score brought us Mahler that was cliché free, eschewed mannerisms or neurotic self-absorption to give us something with more of an organic structure. The opening horn calls of the long ‘Summer marches in’ first movement (described by Mahler as ‘Pan awakes’) led to the passages that soon established an ambience of Dionysian turmoil in its episodic mix of primordial or pastoral sounds and raucous military music. The ‘flowers’ movement had a great charm and was wistfully nostalgic. We had heard only about half the symphony yet the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra has already shown amazing virtuosity. There continued to be some especially fine solo contributions from the section principals throughout the symphony and especially by the leader, Sebastian Breuninger.

In the third movement, I would have preferred a greater sense of reverie from the posthorn passages played in the upper reaches of the Royal Albert Hall on what sounded to me like an ordinary trumpet; though the dreamworld it all created could not have been composed by anyone other than Mahler. The ironic dissonance of the E-flat minor climax (when Pan is revealed again) allowed a convincing transition into Nietzsche’s ‘Midnight Song’ and present was one of an endangered species it seems – a singer who is capable of filling the Royal Albert Hall with an effortlessly generous volume of sound. However Gerhild Romberger intoned ‘O Mensch! Gib acht!’ with little of the hushed awe for man’s suffering that someone like Petra Lang (in her contralto days) brought to this movement (  The screech of the night-bird called out – through the hinaufziehen instruction for the oboist – perhaps a little less hauntingly than it sometime can but soon the splendid women’s voices of the Leipzig Opera Chorus and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir, as well as, the Children’s Choir took over for the short fifth movement and sang with generous angelic sweetness and charm to set us up nicely for that memorably grandiose and deeply affecting Adagio.

Jim Pritchard

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