United Kingdom Mahler: Sarah Connolly, Ladies of Cheltenham Bach Choir, Cheltenham Youth Choir, Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra / Stephen Threlfall (conductor, Cheltenham Music Festival, Town Hall, Cheltenham, 4.7.2015. (RJ)
Mahler: Symphony No 3 in D minor
I have always longed to hear a live professional performance of Mahler’s gargantuan Third Symphony, but little did I dream that my wish would be granted by a school orchestra. But Chetham’s is no ordinary school; based in Manchester it is Britain’s largest specialist music school, and many of its former pupils are prominent in the musical life of this country. It is worth noting that the musicians also have a slight edge over professional orchestras: what they lack in experience they make up for in energy, staying power, youthful exuberance and ample rehearsal time. These advantages were very much in evidence in this Cheltenham Festival concert in which the whole work – over an hour and a half in duration – was played without an interval.
The opening movement is 35 minutes long, though it it did not feel like that thanks to the variety of expression and ideas conveyed in the music. At first the elemental forces of nature were to the fore with the brass section playing a major role – pitch perfect, loud and brassy where needed, but elsewhere steady and controlled. The strings and the woodwind brought an appealing freshness to the proceedings as they depicted nature springing to life, and the march of summer which eventually blazed forth was unstoppable.
After their major contribution in the opening movement the brass were offered a respite during the second in which the violins and woodwind conjured up vistas of meadows carpeted with wild flowers. There was a lightness of touch from the musicians in this lilting minuet with contrasting folkloric elements in a relaxed, unhurried interpretation that put the listener at his ease. Animal life entered in the jaunty scherzo which began with a delightful passage for woodwind with pizzicato accompaniment. All sections of the orchestra then came into play later with some stirring climaxes and sounds which reflected life in all its different manifestations.
Mankind, in the person of Sarah Connolly, took its place in the fourth movement, a setting of Nietzsche’s Midnight Song (O Mensch! Gib Acht! ) with some restrained playing from the orchestra which maintained a mesmerising pianissimo throughout. The sudden appearance of the human voice after an hour of instrumental music created a frisson, and Miss Connolly brought just the right tone of seriousness and expression that the words required.
A cheerful arrangment of Es sungen drei Engel from Des Knaben Wunderhorn transformed the mood with plenty of bells and lively, sparkling contributions from the Ladies of Cheltenham Bach Choir, the Cheltenham Youth Choir and Sarah Connolly. Mahler was to reuse some of the material from this movement in Das himmlische Leben, the finale to his Fourth Symphony, which shares its mood of exhilaration and joyousness.
It is worth remarking at this juncture that in this mighty work each section of the orchestra has its share of the spotlight, and none were found wanting. Here the percussion section was prominent, yet they had been providing excellent support all along, sometimes playing so quietly and deftly that one scarcely noticed them. Solo passages were handled with confidence and flair – by the orchestra’s impressive leader, the principal trombone and others.
The string playing was marvellous throughout and in the final movement they had a great opportunity to show off their mettle – the lower strings especially who started off with a stunningly smooth melodic line, their playing quiet and seamless. Later the violins and woodwind joined in adding to the poignancy of the music. Of this sublime Adagio Bruno Walter wrote: “It is a single sound of heartfelt and exalted feelings in which the whole giant structure finds its culmination.” Certainly as one listened to it the disparate elements of the symphony began to fall into place, and the whole work culminated in a mighty climax.
The Third Symphony may have attracted criticism in its time for being unwieldy, yet conductor Stephen Threlfall (whom I suspect of possessing Svengali-like powers) managed to establish its structural coherence in a performance which never flagged. I suppose he and his young protégés have been living, working and sleeping with this work for several weeks in order achieve such a high standard of playing. The preparation for this concert was clearly exceedingly thorough, with not a single rough passage or an entry missed on the night. One hopes that familiarity with the work has not bred contempt, but there were no signs of this on the musicians’ faces. This monumental, moving and unique experience is surely one which they will remember and treasure all their lives, as doubtless will many members of the audience.
The Cheltenham Music Festival continues until Saturday 11th July. See www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/music.