A Mahler Third Presented in Surprising but Illuminating Colors

United StatesUnited States Mahler: Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Women of the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir (Amanda Quist, director), The American Boychoir/Fernando Malvar-Ruiz (music director), Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 20.5.2017. (BJ)

Mahler – Symphony No.3

It is always illuminating to hear a performance that shifts emphasis from well known aspects of a work to less expected ones. I have especially admired recordings of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto that left their strongest impression through a hushed lyricism that spiritually overshadowed that work’s more familiar brashness: Stephen Kovacevich’s version with Colin Davis was one excellent late-20th-century example, and Barry Douglas’s with his Camerata Ireland is an equally notable one, recorded just a decade ago, that came close to making me finally fall in love with my unfavorite among the composer’s five essays in the genre.

With this Philadelphia Orchestra performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony, the case was similar. Many audience members – I among them – probably came to the concert expecting to be impressed most powerfully by the sprawling work’s sheer bigness (it plays for a full 100 minutes) and by the aural impact of climaxes and sudden explosive tutti chords in an orchestration featuring no fewer than eight horns with other sections sized to match.

Well, the length of the symphony was certainly not short-changed under Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s baton. But it seemed to me that it was the many passages of pianissimo mystery that emerged more compellingly than the fortissimos. This was for reasons partly positive but also partly negative.

The gorgeous playing of the orchestra’s strings,  harps, and woodwinds (oboist Richard Woodhams most ravishing among the latter) was responsibility for this change of emphasis. Important also was the contribution, at once sumptuous and impeccably focused, of the Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill, beautifully supported by the trombone section led by Nitzan Haroz, and the women’s and boys’ choirs were also admirably lively and well disciplined. (The offstage posthorn solo, by the way, was gracefully played by David Bilger not on that instrument but on a C trumpet.)

On the other hand, the really emphatic fortissimos were strong but never quite apocalyptic, and even the opening proclamation of the main theme by all those horns, though crisp enough, seemed a little underpowered. From such a judgement I must exempt the playing of timpanists Don Liuzzi and Angela Zator Nelson, who delivered their mighty thwacks on the last page of the score with immense force and impeccable synchronization.

Altogether, then, this was an unorthodox reading of the symphony that made much of its subtler aspects, while disappointing slightly in the matter of sheer heft and dynamic impact.

Bernard Jacobson

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