Mahler, Symphony No. 3

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.


10 Responses to “Mahler, Symphony No. 3”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I had always thought Peter to be a committed Mahlerian, but his reservations about the earlier parts of the Third Symphony mirror my mine about quite a lot of his music.

    Mahler’s music is outstanding, astonishing, but many symphonies attempt to do too much for my personal taste, with the symphonic argument often disrupted by abrupt changes in direction. Then there is the self-absorbed angst, sometimes overwhelming. It helps if you know a piece fairly well because then you know what is coming next, so the changes in direction come as less of a surprise. Still, Mahler’s Third Symphony does have a tremendous effect, as indeed most of the symphonies have.

    I’ve never heard the Third Symphony live myself, only on the radio or on CD. It must be a tremendous experience in the concert hall.

    I admire the quiet, careful conducting of Tadaaki Otaka. I remember the excellent results he got from the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, later renamed the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, in the late 1980s and 1990s when he was principal conductor. I attended St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, regularly and enjoyed many excellent performances from that partnership. It must have really good to have him back to conduct the orchestra in St. David’s Hall, and nice to have Katarina Karnéus back on the stage where she won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition.

  2. telescoper Says:


    It’s not the angst that bothered me; there’s actually very little of that in the third symphony, at least to my ear. It’s Mahler in his “up” state. My problem with the piece is that I didn’t find it particularly coherent. It seems to be a lot of very different ideas – some of which are absolutely beautiful – put together with no real regard for inner structure.

    Since writing this post I read a bit more about this work and it seems it is really intended to be in two parts, with Part 1 being the first movement and Part 2 being the rest. It makes more sense viewed that way, I think.

    Notwithstanding my comments about the rest of this work, I still think the final movement is just beyond words. Watch the film belowof the Vienna Philharmonic (c. Leonard Bernstein) and I hope you’ll see what I mean. When I was younger I used to feel ashamed when music made me cry…


  3. Bryn Jones Says:


    That is right, the angst is not so present in the Third Symphony. It does change direction regularly in the early parts though, which as a style does not particularly appeal to me either. That is, as you said, put aside in the later parts where the symphonic argument is much stronger.

    That performance by Leonard Bernstein is lovely and moving. Interestingly, the first part of that clip reminded me a lot of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony. I have heard very high praise for Bernstein’s Mahler performances, but only have the Fifth Symphony on CD, a very nice disc. He may emphasise the angst and dramatic elements in some of his performances, which may be in a slightly different direction to my personal tastes.

    I have found myself listening to the Second Symphony a lot over the past few months, particularly the spectacular, elated ending. That is amazing music. Perhaps that is what I get most out of music: a sense of emotional uplift, optimism and drive forward. Or perhaps I choose to listen to music that does that to me.


  4. telescoper Says:

    I have a full set of Bernstein Mahler symphonies. Some of them are a bit a mannered, to put it mildly. Almost as if Bernstein is trying to impose his own personality on the music. Curiously, though, the 3rd symphony isn’t really like that. It’s very “straight”.

    One of the youtube commenters pointing out something that’s worth repeating about that clip: not only is it lovely music, but the photography is wonderful too. As well as an amazing sound to hear, it’s also an amazing sight to see a full symphony orchestra performing like that.

  5. Bryn Jones Says:


    Yes, I was impressed by the film of Bernstin conducting. I’m not usually convinced that seeing film of an orchestra playing adds much to listening to the music, but it is really interesting in this case and works well. Bernstein’s conducting did seem clear, unlike many others.

    However, seeing an orchestra play live does add something if you know the piece being played. You can see precisely where the music comes from. You can see how many horn players perform at a particular point, or how many cellists at another. I did this at the Festival Hall last Thursday, but being in the audience means that you see the orchestra from a distance, or if close up, you have a close view of some players but not those sitting behind them.

    I still need to transfer a recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony from CD to my MP3 player.


  6. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    Mirroring your comment about the sixth movement in this performance of Mahler’s 3rd staying with you forever, one of my most treasured musical memories relates to a performance of Mahler’s 8th in Edinburgh donkey’s years ago.

    While I no longer recall the orchestra or the conductor after so many years (sinful, I know), I do remember the end of the final movement with absolute clarity, as I was in tears. So too was the man in the seat next to me, and we both sat there for a good 15 minutes after all of the ovations had finished and the rest of the audience had left.

    We hadn’t shared a word until he finally stood up and said, addressing no-one in particular, despite my being the only other person left, “And to think that most people will never have that experience …”, after which he left.

    Some years later, I flew to San Francisco to see the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas play the 8th at the Davies. (I was en-route to my brother’s wedding in Tokyo, so it was a very convenient stop-over).

    Having spent that much on the flights, however, I thought I might as well splash out on the best ticket in the house, middle of front row, dress circle. Another very fine performance, but the stand-out memories this time were introducing myself to my immediate seat-mate, to which his response was “Hello, I’m Gordon Getty”, and meeting Tilson Thomas backstage, resplendent in a high-backed armchair in his dressing room, wearing a rather outrageous kimono. He was nevertheless impressed to hear that I had flown in from London that day to hear him conduct … 🙂

    All of which serves to remind me that I need to sign up to the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall, which streams high quality HD performances live (and later from archive) to your laptop or telly. The quality looks fabulous and I’ve had rave recommendations from some friends who used to be concert mates of mine when we lived in Berlin. Rattle is conducting all of Mahler this season, so should be good value. Plus, I see checking, university teachers get 30% off, so sign up now!

  7. […] Katarina Karnéus, who won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1995 and  performed in Mahler’s Third Symphony last year. There’s just a chance, therefore, that this recording was made in St David’s […]

  8. I’ve just checked the score and I can confirm it is a Flugelhorn, in Bb to be precise.

  9. Bryn Jones Says:

    I see from the BBC’s schdules that what appears to be a recording of Peter’s concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Friday, 8th April, 2011 (beginning around 3:30 p.m.).

  10. Hi Peter

    I just set up a blog – first ever – with a “Mahler appreciation” reference, specifically the last movement of the Third Symphony. I’m sending you this note because your comments above make me think that you just might have some agreement with me (see – Single Greatest Artistic Achievement By a Human Being. Ever). It’s only for fun –
    I’m not a proper writer or journalist. But if you cared to leave a comment, I’d be delighted. Best wishes, Nick Stockbridge

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