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Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 3
30 Oct 2007

MAHLER: Symphony no. 3

When performances remain in the aural memory of the audience long after the final wave of applause, the event merits attention.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 3

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Michelle De Young, mezzo soprano, Women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Chicago Children’s Chorus, Bernard Haitink, conductor.

CSO Resound 21744 [2CDs]

$21.49  Click to buy

Such is the case with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2006 concert in which Bernard Haitink conducted Mahler’s Third Symphony on several evenings in October of that year. Taken from performances recorded on 19, 20, and 21 October 2006, this live recording preserves the outstanding association between Haitink and the Chicago Symphony, a relationship that continues through the present season. This first release on the Chicago Symphony’s own label also brings the fine performance to a broader audience with a performance that stands well when compared to other, fine recordings of this challenging work by Mahler.

Because of the expansiveness of the sound involved with this Symphony, the Third is not always readily accessible through recordings. The waves of sound with which the out movements conclude stand in contrast to the delicate and chamber-music-like sonorities of second movement, the Tempo di Menuetto. Likewise, the string textures that dominate the latter movement and the much of the Finale differ in quality from brass timbres of the first movement or the vocal textures in the fifth. The fourth movement poses other challenges, with its subtle accompaniment to the solo female voice that presents the text from Friedrich Nietzche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, “O Mensch!, Gib acht!” The series of contrasts point to a palette of sounds and textures that typifies the organic structure of the work, a composition in which its composer attempted to relate the various levels of existence, from inarticulate nature to human speech and, ultimately, its unity with the Deity expressed here as the apotheosis of love, the force that binds the cosmos within the Schopenhauerian existence.

In expressing the world through the genre of the symphony, Mahler made the symphonic idiom a universe of its own, through the range of ton colors and textures, musical forms, and other elements he united in what is, ultimately, a cyclic work. The challenge for the conductor and the orchestra is to bring out the unity of Mahler’s conception, without allowing its diversity to suggest a disjointed work. Among the memorable recordings of this work are those of Leonard Bernstein, with the New York Philharmonic and also James Levine with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Other historic recordings of this work include Mitroupolos’s relatively early, albeit somewhat truncated recording from the 1950s. In this recording of his recent performances of the work, Haitink demonstrates the command of the score that made his earlier recording of the Third Symphony memorable when he performed it with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Yet this later performance by Haitink retains its own quality. Without comparing this particular performance against the others, listeners will find in this CSO-Resound release a compelling interpretation because of Haitink’s attention to the details of the score. At the same time the finesse of the Orchestra is apparent throughout, with the solo parts evenly precise and expressive. No concerto for orchestra, this work remains has demands of solo performances and soli sections that exceed the kind usually encountered in a conventional symphony. It requires an ensemble as skilled and integrated as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to approach this score so convincingly, and when as insightful a conductor as Haitink can shape it, the result is memorable.

The vocal element also requires a deft musician, and Michelle De Young is exceptional in this work, and this recording is almost a close-up of her performance, which was more distant when heard from the stage of Symphony Center. Audible, yet not overly present, De Young’s articulate voice and subtle coloring are essential in the sub-structure of movements that lead from the depiction of night, in which she sings, to the contrastingly bright sounds of programmatic angels in the following movement. Those two shorter pieces are a foil for the slow Finale, in which Love is expressed without words in an instrumental piece that is impressive for its majestic and subtly powerful conclusion.

Mahler’s symphonies contain a variety of Scherzos, and the one Mahler composed for this work is notable for its inclusion of an instrumental transformation of one of his settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The solo trumpet – the Posthorn – Mahler scored for the work, is particularly effective in this recording because of its sweet and even sound. Heard live, the sonic distance that occurs in this passage seems greater than it can be rendered in a recording like this. Yet this recording offers a fine representation of the movement, which is also notable for the woodwinds, which demonstrate their remarkably tight ensemble playing. In fact, such playing is evident in the second movement, which is, perhaps, a little faster than some conductors take the movement, but nonetheless effective here.

The structural weight of Mahler’s Third Symphony resides in its two outer movements, with the expansiveness of the first movement counterpoised by the thematic unity of the Finale. A slow movement, like one of the Adagio movements of a symphony by Bruckner or, the dramatic procession of Elsa in Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, the Finale of Mahler’s Third Symphony demands the intensity that Haitink brought to the live performances and which is evident in this recording. Again, the sonic quality of this recording is a facsimile of the live performances, but does not resemble completely the experience of this music in performance when heard within the resonant space of Symphony Hall. Nevertheless, the sound derived from the microphones place above the ensemble captures some details that might have escaped the audiences at the concerts. It is difficult to deny, though, the powerful conclusion that Haitink draws from the Chicago Symphony in the finale sections of the last movement which, in itself, left a lasting impression about the power of this work in the hands of a master conductor. This is an impressive interpretation of Mahler’s monumental Third Symphony, and it should stand well with other fine recordings of this work. As the CD by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that inaugurates its own label, this fine release bodes well for future recordings that the ensemble will offer.

James L. Zychowicz

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