Day 22 of the George Enescu Festival: Paavo Järvi and the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich

RomaniaRomania George Enescu Festival 2021 [7] – Mahler: Wiebke Lehmkuhl (contralto), Romanian Radio Children’s Choir, Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic, Tonhalle Orchester Zurich / Paavo Järvi (conductor). Sala Palatului, Bucharest, 18.9.2021. (SS)

Wiebke Lehmkuhl (contralto) and Paavo Järvi (conductor) (c) Alex Damian

Mahler – Symphony No.3 in D minor

This performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony reopened the newly renovated Tonhalle in Zurich last week, and by all accounts (review click here) the playing was superb and made all the more intense by the Tonhalle’s acoustic facelift. I can report the same about the playing in Bucharest, and that the hall also played an important role here, in a different way – but more on that later.

The opening, with its eight French horns, was not the most attention-grabbing start to Mahler 3 I have heard; indeed, the whole introduction was a little on the slow side and not dramatic enough. But the playing and conducting soon got into its stride, and being a great fan of Paavo Järvi’s recorded output (though not having had much chance to hear him live), I was not surprised; he isn’t one to turn Mahler into constant ‘conductor’s music’, but he is no joyless Puritan either. The climax of the exposition suddenly got very exciting indeed, offering the first of many tingling sensations that steadily grew into the intoxicating realization that this was a big Mahler symphony being played in a big hall. Thereafter, there was no return to the listlessness of the beginning: a strong sense of line was sustained throughout the development and the coda swelled (wholly organically, Järvi never pushed the music to its limits) until the sound majestically filled the hall.

The last Mahler symphony I listened to was on disc a couple of weeks prior to this performance – Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic milking the life and every last drop of emotion out of Mahler 10, with one other incorrigibly Nézet-Séguin-ish touch being that the caustic passages had all the bite of a warm bath. With Järvi, however, Mahler’s menacing edges and acerbic contrasts were neither toned down nor overstated. All the more special (not to mention paradoxical) was how smoothly these shard-like elements repeatedly punctured the surface of what was an otherwise pretty dreamy take on the second and third movements. This involved bigger fluctuations of tempo than in most performances, but these flowed naturally without any Brucknerian stops and starts.

Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s ‘O Mensch! Gib Acht!’ was ideal: full of warmth, care and feeling. The voice gave a strong hunch that she’s probably a first-rate Erda, but at the same time her almost maternal way with the text sounded nothing like Erda’s warnings. The oboe Naturlaute actually seemed like enchantingly mysterious ‘sounds of nature’, rather than some kind of bizarre waterfowl vocalization, as they sometimes end up sounding (could it be, contrary to urban legend, that the Viennese oboe is no longer the exclusive preserve of the Viennese and has also been adopted in Zurich?). ‘Bimm Bamm’, sung by the Romanian Radio Children’s Choir, was interesting: totally audible, for one thing, which it reportedly hadn’t been in Zurich (different hall, different choir), and with less emphasis on the plosive and more on blending – quite beautifully, as it turned out – with ‘Es sangen drei Engel’, sung with bell-like clarity by the Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic.

One thing about seeing Järvi conduct live for maybe only the second or third time was that his beat – it makes no sense to talk of ‘gestures’, since there were hardly any – gave absolutely nothing away. He occasionally sub-divided, but otherwise his motions were the model of simplicity. This economy of gesture fascinatingly belied the protean subtlety of his interpretation, and nowhere was this more evident than in the final movement, which began as exquisitely fragile chamber music, with the sound unfolding little by little until a dramatic shift to full intensity with the entry of the brass. With the multiple peaks of this movement, Järvi was superb at bringing the entire forces of the orchestra to the brink and stopping just short of the abyss. The soaring build-up at the end grew and grew until its dimensions were a vast expanse of sound – ‘Zum Raum wird hier der Klang’, to paraphrase Wagner, although I wonder to what extent the specific ‘Raum’ of the Sala Palatului also played a part.

Mahler famously recoiled at the notion of his Eighth Symphony being turned into a ‘catastrophic Barnum and Bailey performance’ at its Munich premiere, but having lived in Vienna long enough to hear several performances of the Third and Eighth, I often found the two main Viennese halls too small for this music. What if the better historic hall for these works in Mahler’s hometown was not the bourgeois Musikverein but the working-class Katherinenhalle, which during Mahler’s lifetime was one of the largest public meeting halls in Vienna, with room for 4000 people and, yes, situated in the middle of an amusement park? It was in this Barnum and Bailey setting that figures like Zemlinsky and Webern conducted ambitious concerts for Viennese workers sprinkled with barnstorming speeches by leading Social Democrats (given in an era when social democracy actually wanted to foment class struggle; how things have regressed).

No performance today could recreate an impression of the unique atmosphere there, with its utopian synthesis of high culture, popular culture and mass politics – an inherently unstable socio-cultural experiment that didn’t survive much longer than the Katharinenhalle itself (razed in 1925). But hearing Mahler’s Third Symphony in another 4000-seat hall, which seemed to ideally match the proportions of the work (two sizes bigger than most European halls, but smaller than the acoustic nightmare of the Royal Albert Hall), did back up the flowery hyperbole with which critics in the workers’ newspapers often described the musical performances at these Viennese workers’ concerts – in this space, Järvi and the Tonhalle Orchester took Mahler’s symphony to a higher plane, where it overwhelmed the senses, and the emotions too.

Sebastian Smallshaw

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