Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra: Mahler Symphony No. 3

Well, I’m back in Maynooth after a weekend in Cardiff, on the Sunday of which I went to St David’s Hall to see the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra playing Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony. Actually this concert was originally scheduled to take place on the evening of Friday 15th June, which is why I booked a ticket to return from Bonn in time to see it instead of waiting for the formal close of the meeting. As it turns out, my flight was so late I would have missed it but fortunately the Rolling Stones intervened. Because Jagger et al were performing at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff on Friday (with all the consequent congestion and traffic disruption that implies) it was decided to shift the concert to Sunday 18th, but I couldn’t be bothered to change my flight.

Anyway, it proved an excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon. 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 at by just looking at the scale of the forces arrayed on stage when it’s about to be performed live. For yesterday’s concert at St David’s Hall, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra was augmented by the WNO Community Chorus and the Choristers of St David’s Metropolitan Cathedral Choir, as well as soloist mezzo soprano Kate Woolveridge.

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). Yesterday 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.

It’s worth pointing out that the orchestra and choir(s) tackling this immense work were non-professional. It’s also worth pointing out that the principal French Horn – who is given a lot to do in this piece – was none other than Dr Bernard Richardson, recently retired from the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.

I have to admit I have always had 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 is, 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 sounds rather 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, the former a setting of a poem by Nietzsche and the latter a mixture of traditional verse and Mahler’s own words, but it was in the majestic sixth and final movement that the orchestra really reached its peak. This is one of the most romantic movements to be found in all of Mahler, passionate, lyrical and supremely uplifting. At times before the sixth movement the orchestra (especially the brass) had struggled a bit with the demands of the score, but the finale was as good a performance as you’ll hear anywhere.

Mahler’s 3rd Symphony is an epic journey through a landscape filled with dramatic contrasts. At times you wonder where you are going, and sometimes feel in danger of getting completely lost, but by the time you arrive triumphantly at the final destination all those doubts had melted away. Congratulations to the Cardiff Philharmonic on a very fine performance, warmly received by the audience.

After the concert there was a collection on behalf of the Forget-Me-Not Chorus, which supports people with dementia and their families through weekly singing sessions. I think this is a great initiative and made a donation on the way out – if you feel like doing likewise you can do so here.

Well, that’s my concert-going at St David’s Hall over for another season. Indeed, it’s probably the last concert I’ll be attending there for the foreseeable future, as I’ll be relocating fully to Ireland this summer. I’ll have many fine memories of listening to music there.

3 Responses to “Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra: Mahler Symphony No. 3”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I too have many happy memories of concerts in St David’s Hall during the two periods I lived in Cardiff. I haven’t been to a concert there in over 17 years now.

    I trust there will be many excellent concerts in Dublin, and some in Maynooth.

    • telescoper Says:

      There are weekly concerts at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, for a start. I haven’t been able to attend any yet, but the subscription package looks very inexpensive so I’m looking forward to next season. There are of course many other music venues in Dublin.

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