Salonen, the Philharmonia and Michelle DeYoung Bring Emotional Power to Mahler 3

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Voices, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, London, 1.10.2017. (JPr)

Mahler – Symphony No.3

The endless fascination about Mahler’s music is that performances of the same symphony can be so very different from each other …apart obviously from the notes on the page! In the recent past, I remember three vastly different accounts of his Third Symphony: firstly, from the late Claudio Abbado with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra whose reading was introspective and self-absorbed, quiet and very spiritual. Shortly thereafter, Valery Gergiev launched his Mahler cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra and assailed the Barbican audience with a viscerally exciting performance that – apart from being extremely Tchaikovskian – seemed like a complete review of Mahler’s influence on twentieth-century Russian music. About the same time there was a performance by the Philharmonia under Lorin Maazel – someone else no longer with us – which I described as ‘the Mahler trip of a lifetime’ (click here for review). More recently there was a fine Mahler 3 from Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic which I considered had in part – like Maazel –  eschewed ‘over-sentimentalising for something more structural and psychological’.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is currently principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Philharmonia Orchestra and they will be ever associated through this Mahler symphony. Rather like the composer himself, Salonen only became a conductor because it would ensure he could conduct his own works. Then in 1983 – at very short notice – he replaced an indisposed Michael Tilson Thomas to conduct a performance of the Third Symphony with the orchestra without apparently having ever studied the score, and the rest – as the saying goes – is history.

Mahler thought about giving his Third Symphony a title – perhaps Pan – after the Greek god of nature, or The Joyful Science, after one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical works, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft. Ultimately, he decided his audiences did not need to know anything about what inspired his music. The first movement – ‘Summer Marches in (Pan Awakes)’ – is approximately one-third of the entire symphony and one of the largest single movements anywhere: it is also one of the most original and daring in the variety of music it contains. Mahler commented: ‘It is eerie how from lifeless matter (I could just as well have named the movement ‘What the Mountains Tell Me’) life gradually breaks forth, developing step-by-step into ever higher forms of life.’

The next four movements are relatively brief character pieces depicting flowers, animals, people, and angels. The second movement, the flower minuet, includes music that previews Das himmlische Leben (‘Heavenly Life’) which was to end the symphony in Mahler’s original seven-movement concept, but belongs now to the Fourth Symphony. The third movement, a kind of scherzo, is an orchestral version of the setting of ‘Ablösung im Sommer’ (The change in summer), a Wunderhorn song. There are two trios, first a vision of birds and beasts playing; the second a still summer day, disturbed only by the distant posthorn call. The movement ends with a great eruption of sound, as if Pan has arrived to transform the world of birds and animals. The fourth movement introduces the sound of the human voice intoning a setting of Midnight Song’ from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra. The fifth movement follows without any pause, shifting from the hush of midnight to the bright sounds of angels – ‘Es sungen drei Engel’ (Three angels were singing) – and morning bells (‘Bimm, Bamm’). This text also comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The voices are those of women’s chorus, children, and the soloist; the violins are silent throughout. Once more we recall ‘Heavenly Life’.

The final movement doesn’t need description. It is marked ‘Slow. Serene. Sincere’. Mahler had a biblical motto – ‘Father, see these wounds of mine! Let no creature of yours be lost!’ – in mind here. No-one who knows Parsifal will fail to recognise how Mahler must have been inspired by that work – especially here in this slow movement which is so reminiscent of Wagner’s Act III Prelude – and it is music as moving and powerful as any ever written. Mahler’s solemn D major Adagio itself inspired Sammy Fain’s 1930’s song ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ and the first four lines of – what became – Liberace’s theme song are recognisable in this movement. This was a serious omission from Julian Johnson’s otherwise informative programme note.

Mahler concerts are not the immediate sell-outs they once were and it is interesting to see the Philhamonia once again embarking on another Mahler series, with four more symphonies to be performed this season at the Royal Festival Hall. This concert was live-streamed to audiences worldwide on the Southbank Centre’s YouTube channel or The Guardian’s Facebook Live and was available for 48 hours after the concert. Whether this availability will – in the long run – reverse or exacerbate the decline in London audiences for classical music only time will tell.

This Mahler Third would not rank as one of the finest I have heard, but it had its moments. Lasting about 100 minutes including brief pauses. For me it more like Gergiev than Abbado or Maazel, and I prefer something more transcendental than an exhibition of raw orchestral power. As to be expected there was some near-faultless playing from the Philharmonia. As appropriate, there was polish from the upper strings with thrust from the lower ones, as well as precision and articulation from the woodwind. The odd blip from the horns came as a surprise in an overall exemplary performance from all sections of the orchestra – with many virtuosic solo contributions, notably from Tom Blomfield’s first oboe and the concert master Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay. However, I thought Byron Fulcher’s trombone in the first movement was too ‘in your face’ and later Philip Cobb’s flugelhorn suffered similarly, sounding insufficiently ethereal and more like the ‘Last Post’.

The first movement doesn’t work for me when it is like Mahlerian ‘bleeding chunks’; diverse musical elements rather than a cohesive whole. For the remainder of the symphony things were much better, though perhaps still without some of the nostalgia and reverie I look for in this symphony. The second movement’s Ländler was just a picturesque amble through some flowers. but towards the end Salonen – and Mahler’s genius – gave us a lush, yearning, prayerful melody that was almost overwhelming in its emotional power, transcending any weaknesses earlier in the performance to deservedly earn all the performers an extended ovation.

The Philharmonia Voices and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir (is there any other?) fulfilled their brief duties with well-drilled commitment and a focused energy. One of the world’s great mezzo-sopranos, Michelle DeYoung, was on hand to sing the haunting, intense, totally engrossing ‘O Mensch! gib Acht!’ (O man! take heed!) the fourth movement demands. Tall and regal at the front of the platform, her Erda-like singing found DeYoung in her element and she was significantly more suited to this than her Amneris in English which she is currently singing at the London Coliseum.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the Philharmonia Orchestra click here.

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