Archive for October 2, 2010

Mahler, Symphony No. 3

Posted in Music with tags , , on October 2, 2010 by telescoper

Gustav Mahler spoke of his Third Symphony as being “of such magnitude that it mirrors the whole world” and you can see what he was getting by just looking at the scale of the forces arrayed on stage when it’s about to be performed live. For last night’s concert at St David’s Hall,  the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (conducted by Tadaaki Otaka) was augmented by the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the boy choristers of Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester cathedrals, as well as star mezzo soprano Katarina Karnéus.

The orchestra needed to perform this extravagant work is much larger than for a normal symphony, and it involves some   unusual instrumentation: e.g.  two harps, a contrabassoon, heaps of percussion (including tuned bells and double tympanists), etc. The string section was boosted by double-basses galore, and there’s also a part (for what I think was a flugelhorn) to be played offstage.

The work is also extremely long, being spread over six movements of which the first is the longest (over 30 minutes). Last night the performance stretched to about 1 hour and 40 minutes overall, with no interval. I don’t know of any symphonic works longer than this, actually.

Given the numbers involved it’s no surprise that this piece isn’t performed all that often and it is a work that, despite my great admiration for Mahler, I’d never heard it the whole way through until until last night.

I have to admit I had a lot of trouble getting to grips with the first movement, in which various themes are repeatedly played off against each other, punctuated by a series of extravagant crescendo passages in which the orchestra threatened to blow the roof off. It was, at times, thrilling but also manic and, to me, rather indecipherable. The second movement, in the form of a minuet, is elegant enough, and was beautifully played (especially by the strings), but in comparison with the wayward exuberance of the first movement it sounded rather trite and conventional.

The third movement, however, is totally gorgeous, especially in the passages featuring  the offstage flugelhorn (?) and the string section of the orchestra on stage. From this point this piece started to bring me under its spell. The solo vocalist and choir(s) were marvellous in the fourth and fifth movements, but it was in the majestic final movement that the orchestra reached its peak, translating Mahler’s score into an unforgettable concert experience; the beauty of the music was overwhelming.

Mahler’s 3rd Symphony is like an epic journey through a  landscape filled with dramatic contrasts. At times last night I wondered where we were going, and sometimes felt we were in danger of  getting completely lost, but by the time we arrived triumphantly at the final destination all those doubts had melted away. That performance of the sixth movement will stay with me for the rest of my life. It was  privilege to be there, and to know what it’s like to be touched by greatness.

I know I’m not the only one to have been deeply moved; the end of the symphony was greeted with a rapturous standing ovation by the nearly full house at St David’s Hall. I think the concert was being recorded, so hopefully those who weren’t lucky enough to have been present will get the opportunity to hear it before long.


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