Austria Mahler: Elisabeth Kulman (contralto), Ladies’, Children’s and Youth Choirs of the Landestheater, Linz, Bruckner Orchestra Linz / Francesco Angelico (conductor). Musikverein, Vienna, 23.6.2017. (MB)
Mahler: Symphony no.3
‘Honoured Herr Direktor,’ began one Arnold Schoenberg, fresh from the dress rehearsal on 12 December 1904 for the first Vienna performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony. Schoenberg continued his letter to the Director of the State Opera, hymning his experience of that concert, from which he dated his conversion to Mahler’s music:
In order to come close, even remotely so, to the unheard-of impression your symphony had upon me, I cannot speak to you as musician to musician, but must rather speak to you as one human being to another. For: I have seen your soul naked, stark naked. It lay before me, like a wild, mysterious landscape, with blood-curdling depths and ravines, and next, bright, comely, sunny meadows and idyllic places of repose.
Schoenberg confessed that he had not found the symphony’s ‘programme’, which he had only read after the performance, remotely in correspondence with his own experience. Instead, he had felt ‘the pain of one disillusioned … truth, the most relentless truth!’ Few encounters with the Third, perhaps with any of Mahler’s symphonies, will prove quite so decisive, quite so transformational, as that: how could they? By the same token, a performance that does not teach one something new, does not present something of a different way of considering, of hearing the work will have failed. I am delighted, then, to report that this performance, from the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, under Francesco Angelico, certainly showed me much that was new, as much about possibilities of listening as about the work ‘itself’.
The first surprise was that Angelico was conducting at all. Most of the audience, me included, had expected Dennis Russell Davies. Angelico, a very late replacement, soon had one thinking, or at least feeling, that, a few occasional slips of ensemble apart, he had always been going to conduct. From the opening of the third movement, we heard a performance that was flexible yet directed: none of the arbitrary, frankly narcissistic pulling around of the score that made a London performance from Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic a few years ago well-nigh unbearable. (Fashion victims went wild, of course; they always do.) This was a monumental awakening, greater than any of us, which could yet incorporate individual subjectivity: Mahler’s, the performers’, our own, even Schoenberg’s. There was something of what I imagine, however absurdly, the spirit of a Mengelberg in this music to have been. Even when I personally – who cares? – would have relaxed a little more, there was always good, supportable reason for what Angelico did. The chorale passages were taken swiftly: light, lucid, transparent even, as if a message from another world. And the marches could both be nervously enjoyed for their own sake, whilst still knowing where they were heading. The golden sound of the orchestra – doubtless the hall’s too, but a great acoustic still needs a great orchestra – was magical, but never gave the slightest impression of being such for its own sake. Just as important, the players and their conductor were not afraid to sound nasty, to snarl, to take the music to the edge. The final climax was almost – I said ‘almost’ – enough to make one reconsider one’s dislike of applause between movements. It would certainly have been preferable to silence, followed by applause (from some) as the soloist came on stage. What were they thinking?!
The second movement perhaps lacked simplicity (however artfully contrived that simplicity may be), but that is better than being simplistic. Angelico showed himself fully aware of colour and its complications. Again, extremity was an option – even to the point of contradiction. There were a few too many rough orchestral edges, but in the greater scheme of things, they barely mattered. The third movement offered a seductive sardonicism in colour and rhythm. Its edges’ sharpness was unquestionably a good thing. If there were a few occasions on which I wondered whether the line were in danger of becoming lost, complexity again certainly registered. The posthorn solo was delivered from above with surpassing beauty, a truly ravishing contrast to the disconcerting weirdness of tricksters or the truly malign to be heard elsewhere. Here there was to be no ironing out of differences.
The colour of Elisabeth Kulman’s voice seemed to me perfect for the fourth movement. Almost reed-like, it spoke with truly Zarathustrian dignity. The Linz orchestra was both a wondrous backdrop and far more than that, speaking as if it were Wagner’s orchestra as Greek Chorus. Kulman could be more imploring, though, too, as she showed later on, when the text suggested or demanded it. The sudden lift of mood for the fifth movement was just the ticket: a signal for duly ambiguous enchantment. It was a fairy-tale – and we all know of what difficult, unconscious desires those speak. There was again, no break before the finale – which nicely highlighted the tonal difference. Angelico kept it moving, never mistaking sentiment for sentimentality. It was not a huge, overwhelming string sound; instead, it sounded like a string quartet writ (very) large. One truly felt, as well as heard, bows on strings. And yes, it did what it needed to do – just as it had for Schoenberg many years earlier. There was an honesty, an integrity to this performance that moved me just as it should.
Mahler, who had already been observing Schoenberg’s career from afar, immediately sent him a ticket for the premiere itself. The rest is musical history.