Radiant Mahler Three from Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 45 – Mahler: Jenny Carlstedt (mezzo-soprano), Trinity Boys Choir, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 19.8.2023. (CK)

Mahler Three at the BBC Proms from Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Mahler – Symphony No.3

There was a sold-out Royal Albert Hall for Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Mahler Three hard on the heels of their hastily-arranged Mahler Seven (review here); and the audience was rewarded with an uncommonly fine performance.

Oramo had his own ideas about tempo: there was an unusually clear separation between the opening D minor music (and its subsequent reappearances), taken very deliberately, and the F major march music, taken fast. The three incursions of the solo trombone reverted to the opening tempo; here they were powerful apparitions of ‘the heat, the stillness, the Pan-ic terror’, in Alma’s memorable phrase. All this is, of course, as Mahler marked it; but Oramo chose to underline the contrast.

In the Introduction the bass drummer used short wooden sticks to articulate those little four-note throbs, pianissimo, that depict the deadened pulse of inert Nature: they often sound muffled, but here they put me in mind of the wintry desolation of Thomas Hardy’s Darkling Thrush: ‘The ancient pulse of germ and birth/Was shrunken hard and dry’. A good idea, too, to have the three side drums beat the retreat from the Gallery rather than offstage: another example of the musical possibilities offered by the generous and wonderful space afforded by the Royal Albert Hall (do we sometimes take it for granted?).

As the performance unfolded, it became clear that the forces represented by the D minor music (schwer und dumpf – heavy and dull) are not dismissed by the clattering exuberance of the movement’s end. They keep resurfacing: even in the sentimental song of the posthorn in the third movement, which here suggested a kinship with the second trombone solo (marked Sentimental). Most dramatically, of course – and terrifyingly – in the reappearance of Pan at the end of that movement, gatecrashing the charming Austrian landscape and provoking Mahler’s ‘great leap’ to human consciousness in the fourth movement.

Sakari Oramo conducts Jenny Carlstedt (mezzo-soprano) and the BBC SO © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Jenny Carlstedt, the Finnish-Swedish mezzo-soprano, seemed to take into herself all that had gone before: hers is not a large voice, but her identification with Nietzsche’s meditation on human suffering was total. As the embodiment of Earth’s sorrow (to borrow a phrase from Das Lied von der Erde) she became the focal point of the whole symphony, rather as Dame Sarah Connolly did in Sir Simon Rattle’s performance of the Second Symphony in last year’s Proms. In Urlicht, the mezzo’s passionate longing is to ascend to heaven; here, it is to find the joy that lies deeper than pain. Carlstedt seemed not to notice when the movement ended and the next began; she seemed no part of it, frozen in her D minor anguish as the choirs carolled brightly around her in F major. It was most moving; and it made the sensation of balm as the violins stole in to begin the finale all the keener.

Enough, perhaps more than enough, of my personal response to this performance: where we can surely all agree is in recognising the quality of the playing and conducting through the length and breadth of this extraordinary score. Every section deserved its vociferous applause. There was nobility and power in the brass, from the nine horns all the way across to the tuba: the biggest roars at the end were (rightly) for Helen Vollam, principal trombone, and Niall Keatley, offstage flugelhorn, but there was also wonderful work from Philip Cobb, principal trumpet, and Martin Owen, principal horn. The woodwind section played out of their skins, whether tugging at our hearts with the speaking eloquence of their solo playing or collectively forming a raucous Mahlerian aviary. The string playing was supple, expressive, tirelessly attentive to Mahler’s demands, with a beautiful singing tone in the last movement. There was no want of force and sharpness of attack where they are needed: but time and again it was the quieter music, the multifarious delicacy of Mahler’s orchestral imagination that made the greater impression. Oramo saw to that; and I think it marks him as a greater Mahler conductor than I had realised.

There was a radiance and a glow to this performance that was partly the gift of the hall itself, but more significantly the quality of the sound that Oramo drew from his players. Remarkably, in a symphony as long and as challenging as this, there were no major blemishes: a tiny wobble from the posthorn at the end of his first solo, covered by the flutes; and something went a little awry later in the same movement as two quiet horns handed over to the second trumpet’s spiky little fanfare. The muted cellos and basses at the opening of the fourth movement were, to me, practically inaudible: but this was also true of Claudio Abbado’s performances (and they are marked ppp).

The ladies and the bimm-bamming boys were fine (the latter with a nicely full-throated Liebe nur Gott in alle Zeit!): and it was very good to see and hear the wonderful set of bells from Liverpool used in Vasily Petrenko’s performance of this symphony with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the same hall back in March. The clarity and beauty of the string sound in the final movement gained immeasurably from Oramo’s disposition of the violins across the full width of the stage. His shaping and pacing of this movement was masterly: passionate, certainly, and flexible, yet leaning (thankfully) towards restraint rather than excess. The climactic cosmic heartbeats on the timpani were kept, for once, to the marked forte; and Oramo can be forgiven for tripling the cymbal clash that marks journey’s end, the symphony’s overwhelming point of arrival.

This was music-making of a high order; and – as a performance of this work ought to be – a great experience. At the end, the mezzo-soprano Jenny Carlstedt had to wipe away tears before taking her bow. I don’t imagine that she was alone in doing so.

Chris Kettle

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