Thrills, beauty and fierce clarity: a Dionysian Mahler Three from Järvi and the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Hongni Wu (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Voices (Ladies), Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra / Paavo Järvi (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 16.3.2023. (CK)

Paavo Järvi conducts the Philharmonia © Luca Migliore

Mahler – Symphony No. 3

Mahler’s Third is so widely known and loved that it is odd to be reminded that it was the last of his symphonies to chalk up a UK public performance, fifty years after the composer’s death, and that it aroused critical incomprehension and hostility from the start. After the first Vienna performance Felix Salten (author of Bambi) said that the composer deserved to be locked up for a few years. Sir Donald Tovey poked good-natured fun at its comprehensiveness, describing it as ‘a musical phantasmagoria in which all the elements that have ever been put into a symphony before are conglomerated with all the musical equivalents of a picaresque novel and a Christmas pantomime … On internal evidence it was written during a holiday at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.’

We take such things in our stride now. Perhaps too much so, especially in the first movement. Desmond Shawe-Taylor labelled it an artistic monstrosity, and indeed there are monsters here: it is the job of conductor and players not to tame them, but to conjure them. We do well to remember the description of Mahler’s experience – a decade or so after writing the Third – by his wife Alma: ‘One day in the summer he came running down from his hut in a perspiration, scarcely able to breathe … it was the heat, the stillness, the Pan-ic terror. He was overcome by this feeling of the goat-god’s frightful and ebullient eye upon him in his solitude.’

So, did Paavo Järvi and the Philharmonia let the monsters loose? They did. The introduction was thrillingly eruptive, with braying brass, seismically uprushing basses and ear-splitting drums. It was as stupendous and astonishing as it must have been for Mahler’s first audiences. As the music put out tendrils, expanded and multiplied itself towards Mahler’s riotous ‘Rite of Summer’ there was a fierce clarity to the playing, with Järvi’s stabbing stick or finger going here, there and everywhere, making sure that every detail was spotlit, every rhythm articulated with precision and elasticity. He was clearly revelling in the Dionysian ecstasy of it all, one moment marching on the spot on the podium, the next fluttering his left hand aloft to encourage those raucous horn trills, his body uninhibitedly jaunty as we approached the crazy passage Mahler labelled ‘The Mob’. There was no slack bar; even the central interlude (lovely playing from first violin, horn and flute) went past without any loss of tension or momentum. There was no opportunity to relax, to pull back for a while; I was caught up, ‘in the moment’ throughout: and it was over so soon!

A brief pause, and on we went. The flower minuet was fleet-footed; enough to make one remember with a smile Natalie Bauer-Lechner’s account of Mahler straining his hand trying to write the innumerable sextuplets at the speed he wanted them played. The limpid beauty of sound was enhanced (as also in the finale) by Järvi’s placing the first and second violins left and right, across the full width of the stage. The ending was so exquisite that he seemed unwilling to let it go.

Both this movement and the animal Scherzo were distinguished by some brilliantly characterful woodwind playing, Katherine Bryan’s feisty flute the standout. James Fountain’s posthorn could perhaps have been a little more distant, but he played it so beautifully (so, too, the hushed orchestral accompaniment) that none of the magic was lost.

The mezzo soloist Hongni Wu entered immediately before her movement, to a smattering of applause; I would have preferred her entrance to have been unobtrusive (and earlier), but it wasn’t as bad as Leonard Bernstein’s video Vienna performance, where Lenny goes off to fetch Christa Ludwig and turns her arrival almost into an extra movement of the symphony. Hongni Wu – a graduate of Covent Garden’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme – sang beautifully, seeming to grow in warmth and eloquence; her ‘Ach komm’ und erbarme dich’ in the fifth movement was genuinely touching.

Nocturnal Nietzsche, and a Christian folk song; where next? In some hands the finale can be almost a religious experience. Not here. ‘The Ixion’s Wheel of appearances is at last brought to a standstill’, Mahler told Natalie; but for Järvi and the Philharmonia the goal was in sight, and they harnessed the momentum of the whole performance to press forward towards it. Anguished interruptions were gathered into the music’s progress but not allowed to obstruct it; and so we arrived, via a hushed brass chorale that exposed some tired lips, at the place of fulfilment and joy.

I was at the concert with my daughter, who has been a teacher of philosophy. For me, the performance was thrilling, beautiful, ultimately falling short of the transcendence I was hoping for. For her, it was a moving, courageous and all-embracing response to Nietzsche’s question: How much truth can you bear? All of it, says Mahler. True to the intimations of the Nietzsche ‘Midnight Song’, the performance sought and found the joy that lies (pace Wordsworth) too deep for tears.

One last thing: I have never heard a performance of this dizzyingly multifarious symphony that was so clearly and consistently the outworking of a single vision, generated and sustained by a single impulse. And it was over in no time at all.

Chris Kettle

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