United Kingdom Mahler: Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Trinity Boys Choir (chorus master: David Swinson), BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 24.9.2015 (MB)
Mahler – Symphony no.3 in D minor
No orchestra benefits from the dreadful acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall; given the frequency of its Proms performances, no orchestra therefore suffers so much from that acoustic as the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In a work of the scale of Mahler’s Third Symphony, the Barbican might seem to offer the opposite problem. There were times when the hall did feel a little on the small side, the acoustic becoming unduly congested, but for the most part, this performance from the BBC SO and Sakari Oramo convinced, both on its own terms and those of the hall.
There was certainly a good sense, even at the very opening of the first movement, of how Mahler prolongs, twists, transforms phrases to afford motivic and other development over its great span. (One can perhaps overemphasise the length of the work: great by symphonic standards, true, but hardly by those of Wagner, to whom Mahler perhaps owes most of all.) The dryness of the acoustic permitted us to hear a good deal of instrumental detail, not least the notes in downward glissandi, and in general militated against a soft-centred, generic ‘late Romanticism’ which tends to sentimentalise Mahler and assimilate him to quite the wrong sort of imagined Vienna. I could, for instance, imagine the sound having elicited an admiring nod from Boulez. Echoes of the Second Symphony and presentiments of what was to come (‘O Mensch!’ in particular) were readily apparent. What to make of them? Perhaps that was for us to decide. For the performance of the marching music was well judged in its ambiguity. ‘False optimism’ would be too pat; there was something here perhaps beyond conventional meaning, or at least verbal meaning. Later, of course, the material took a considerably darker turn and properly chilled, its roots in imagined village revelries and urban militarism notwithstanding. ‘Politics in a new key?’ Perhaps. Aspirant musical cinematography, its metaphysical underpinning, and provoked reflections did not, however, work against structure; one could certainly perceive the wood for the trees. That structure was rather infused with formal dynamism as well as local colour and flavour.
I had a few doubts concerning the second and third movements, which did not, I think, entirely avoid a sense of lingering a little too long, of sprawl. Otherwise, however, there was some beautiful moments – and not just those of wondrous hush. The second movement was unusually acerbic: no unduly cloying sweetness here, which is not, of course, to say no sweetness. There was more than a hint of the Totentanz. Perhaps detail slightly overwhelmed the whole, especially towards the end, but when compared to the mauling Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic gave this symphony a few years ago, this was a model of cohesion. The third movement opened as bracing in its – an inevitable metaphor, now – mountain air as Webern’s music. However, countervailing and/or differing forces ensured the multi-dimensionality of the drama – and of our response.
Karen Cargill brought the appealing nature and character of her voice to sound as one with the nature and character of the music in the fourth movement: not just colour, depth, and vibrato, but her use of the words, with respect to meaning and also to their musical quality. Orchestral stillness surrounded them and yet, as Galileo might have said, the music moved – in more senses than one. The fifth movement was appropriately child-like, although certainly not childish. Mahler’s alienated soul rarely permits the unmediated, however much it might long for it. The Trinity boys offered not only very impressive diction but also a splendidly ‘Continental’ sound: more St John’s than King’s. Cargill was able here to show a more urgent side to her Lieder-singing, hers a dignified and illuminating performance.
Dignity was also the watchword of the final Adagio, especially its opening. The acoustic was not ideal for climaxes but did not too seriously detract either. Oramo offered a warm, rich account, the BBC strings and later other instruments giving a wonderful impression of chamber music writ large, almost as if this were the String Quartet Mahler never wrote. The music was chaste and yet suffused with longing, simple yet complex, private yet public: yes, one could certainly think of this and feel it as ‘what love tells me’. This truly sounded, and I can think of few greater compliments, as if it were Mahler’s voice speaking. But might not the audience have allowed us even a second or two of space for reflection before applause?