Jakub Hrůša’s Rather Earth-Bound Mahler Third

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Bernarda Fink (mezzo), Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Philharmonia Voices & Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša (conductor). LSO St Luke’s, London, 11.2.2016. (CC)

Mahler – Symphony No. 3 in D minor

This was a great day for Czech music and musicians as this Mahler Third, directed by Brno-born Jakub Hrůša, followed on from the BBC Lunchtime concert at LSO St. Luke’s given by the Škampa Quartet (review).

In 2014, Hrůša conducted a memorable Suk Asrael Symphony with the Philharmonia at which I was privileged to be present. That concert was reviewed for Seen and Heard by my colleague Geoff Diggines. Mahler’s Third Symphony is another proposition altogether though: a huge, some would say sprawling, edifice that extends over around one hour and 45 minutes. It is important to remember Hrůša’s youth (he is only 34 years old, after all); this is a piece that requires much interpretative mastery. Hrůša’s reading was often stimulating, full of detail yet, for all that, was still obviously a work-in-progress.

There was a touch of Sinopoli’s Mahler to Hrůša’s reading: a sort of X-Ray vision into details of orchestration. The advantage is that Hrůša does not veer towards a deconstructivist approach anywhere near as much as Sinopoli. Thus one can revel in hearing the precise articulation of passages at near-inaudible levels (the bass drum in the first movement, for example), while another time, for example, it is the magical texture of woodwinds and high strings that delights. This surgical approach has interesting ramifications: at times, one can hear where Ives got his layered cacophonies from. Not afraid of the outrageous, Hrůša also brought out the best of his players, from the superb trombonist Byron Fulcher to solo horn Katy Woolley. It was a pity that the off-stage trumpet, Christian Barraclough, was not properly distanced: a vital part of Mahler’s sonic armoury went awry by simply being too up-front.

The first movement, which makes up “Part I” of the symphony (the remaining movements constitute “Part II”), effectively laid out Hrůša’s strengths and weaknesses. For all the technical expertise of the orchestra, one did not really feel drawn into Mahler’s world. So it carried on: there was much charm and rhythmic bounce to the second movement (Tempo di Menuetto), yet it was not until the fourth movement, and Bernarda Fink’s account of “O Mensch”, that one was offered a real depth of field. Here, the proper pianissimo in the lower strings underpinned Fink’s lines, themselves possessed of a focus which was a level up from anything heard so far. It was a shame, then, that the children in the fifth movement sounded rather bored and lacklustre (in contrast the female members of the Philharmonia Voices were fabulous).

The final movement, called by Mahler “What love tells me”, was a flowing, gentle flowering with tissue-delicate divided first violins and a glorious oboe solo from Christopher Cowie. And yet, the intensity was just not quite there; it was more a case of listening to music that one could feel should be intense rather than actually was intense. In keeping with this impression, it was a finale of almosts: some sections almost glowed; the climax was almost shattering. The brass section was faultless technically, their chorale creeping in stealthily, and later crowning the movement memorably. The two timpanists were exactly together at the work’s end. Great plus points, all of them, but Mahler should not just move the soul, it should get inside one’s soul and swing it around, and this performance remained rather earth-bound.

Colin Clarke