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Reviews

Prom 67: Mahler’s Third Symphony - Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons
05 Sep 2018

Prom 67: The Boston Symphony Orchestra play Mahler’s Third

Mahler and I, at least in the concert hall, parted company over a decade ago - and with his Third Symphony it has been an even longer abandonment, fifteen years. Reviewing can nurture great love for music; but it can also become so obsessive for a single composer it can make one profoundly unresponsive to their music. This was my tragedy with Mahler.

Prom 67: Mahler’s Third Symphony - Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Boston Symphony Orchestra, CBSO Chorus and CBSO Youth Chorus at the Royal Albert Hall

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

Re-engaging with Mahler in concert - with his longest and most unique symphony, and, at the time it was written, also most Modernist - brought both dividends and problems. This was a performance that was sometimes remarkable for its precision and beauty; but it was also one that barely survived by the skin of its teeth in parts of it. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, at their best, delved deep into the soul of this music; but there was also some very shaky ensemble, perhaps a little uncharacteristic for this orchestra. In the orchestral battlefields of the meadow and forest, it was very much the flowers which triumphed over the animals in this particular performance. I can’t recall ever having been so engaged by a second movement that just resonated with the perfume of sound; the palate of instruments from the orchestra blossoming like flowers in Spring could almost be touched it was so gorgeously phrased. But come the third movement, what had been a revelation before descended into chaos and incoherence.

Mahler’s Third is, of course, on a colossal scale though its debt to Nietzsche - most obvious in the fourth movement’s mezzo solo from Also sprach Zarathustra - is really a repudiation of much of what the philosopher stood for. Despite its juggernaut proportions, the symphony embraces its own kind of heavenly spirituality - it’s a vast metaphor for Pan, God, nature and innocence, the children’s chorus of the fifth movement being a defining parting of the ways with Nietzsche who preferred the earth over the heavens. The diversity of the musical forms in this symphony is extraordinary, too: there are marches which are militaristic and funereal, peasant music, liturgical music, the voices of children and music that unravels like a spiritual poem. No single performance can ever hope to be everything in this symphony and Andris Nelsons and the Bostonians fell short a little too often.

Andris Nelsons BSO.jpgAndris Nelsons. Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Given that there are almost 900 bars of music to the first movement alone the scope for problems is huge. That there were very few in this performance, and that it was conducted and played so well, suggested that Nelsons had worked hard to understand where its shortcomings might be. The opening march was a true awakening of Pan, with the Boston horns and brass noble enough; there is always a slight risk with some American orchestras that the brass will over-power almost everything in their path but here Nelsons has tamed the instincts of his musicians and they play with a more nuanced sound. But when Mahler asks for it - in the E flat March of the Development section, for example - you got playing that was distinguished by the sound of tubas and trombones playing with heft and coarseness. A solo piccolo sung like a shrill lark, and yet it marvellously hovered over the rest of orchestra as if taking flight. A bassoon rumbled from the bottom of the orchestra. Winds and double-basses playing in unison were notable for the shadows of sound that they cast. These are not necessarily small details, but they were ones that Nelsons spot-lit with uncanny accuracy. A highpoint - and they were really a highpoint throughout the entire symphony - were the incisive timpani. Here we had strokes that swelled against their skins like a coming storm, and timpani rolls that seemed to emerge from the mistiness of the orchestra only to engulf you in a torrential blaze of thunder.

The short second movement was, for me, the highlight of the performance. The playing was not only impeccable, it was that rare thing in a Mahler symphony - spellbinding. The sound of the orchestra was often like a seasonal breeze - solo instruments, especially the winds, were diaphanous, notes floated with such colour it was mesmerising. Oboes, flutes and clarinets didn’t just have the sense they were blossoming; the instruments seemed to bend like stems against the staves on the pages of the score. When the storm arrived those same winds that had swayed through the orchestra were now tossed about to the point of destruction.

Quite what happened to the performance after this point is anyone’s guess because it rarely managed to reach the heights it had done during the first two movements. The third movement was really quite the battleground - and the Boston Symphony Orchestra didn’t come through it completely unscathed. This isn’t music that can be moulded like clay (as Nelsons tends to do in Mahler), and nor is it music that is strictly as Mahler described it in his score. The third movement inhabits a world of extremes: It can be mysterious, poetic, merry, anarchic, but rarely is it ever in the same tempo, and rhythms are more complex here than anywhere else in the work. Those same instruments that were so magical and fragrant as flowers, struggled to emulate bird calls, and the orchestra became a forest where its animals were without terror and, frankly, rather tuneless. If earlier in the performance Toby Oft’s trombone solo had been redolent with beautifully caressed intonation, here the two post horn solos of Thomas Rolfs created the barometer for the rest of the orchestra to quiver at its very roots. Granted, Mahler’s demands are enormous: The second post horn solo alone demands a stretch in dynamics ranging from ppp to fff and then down to ppppp but the unevenness of delivery generated uncertainty elsewhere.

Graham Prom BSO.jpegSusan Graham. Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

The fourth movement introduces us to Nietzsche’s ‘Mitternacht’ from Also sprach Zarathustra. Here, the focus of the symphony’s mood changes - and Mahler requires a mezzo voice to do it justice. Nowhere is the music of the symphony darker in temperament than here, and that has much to do with the exceptional detail Mahler brings to the orchestration. If the music rarely rises above piano, the fabric of the music is largely laid out against fifths played on cellos and double-basses. The nine basses of the Boston Symphony have tonal warmth, as well as a sonorous bottom line, and there was much to admire in their playing here. But in many respects, it’s the voice that matters in this section of the symphony and Susan Graham brought a characteristic beauty to what she sang. Nietzsche repeats derivations of the word ‘tief’ - or dark - throughout the text of his setting and it was to Graham’s credit that these were isolated by differences in tonal colour. If there is a somewhat Wagnerian strength to some of her phrasing, the voice sustains a pianissimo with precision and breadth. But this is also a text that drips with meaning and imagery of eternal pain, and Graham was deft at making us aware that this is the language of poetry that mirrors the music Mahler wrote to accompany it. Nelsons was careful here to let his orchestra follow his singer - rather than the other way around, as can so often happen at this point of the symphony. A bassoon was almost a shadow of Graham’s dark voice disappearing into the vacuum of the Albert Hall.

If there had been a careful matching of the voice against the precise ideals of Mahler’s orchestration in the fourth movement, the fifth choral section of the symphony sharply deviated from it. Quite what the motivation was to replace a boys’ choir with one for girls puzzled me, but the tendency of conductors to fiddle with the voices in Mahler’s symphonies for dramatic effect - whether it be the Fourth or Das Lied von der Erde - is hardly new. Either way, the effect here was to remove the distinctive timbre of the two main choruses one usually hears and absorb them into a universal sound. If you felt that the sound of bells did indeed come from somewhere high up in the hall, the children’s voices didn’t, and this was even more so when the two choirs were singing a cappella where there was just insufficient contrast. Without any orchestral accompaniment to hide the sheer urbaneness of the voices, the sense of innocence was all but lost on me. Indeed, it almost made me think that Nietzsche had won after all and Mahler’s idea that this music ascends to heaven had been forgotten.

Any performance of the last movement of Mahler’s Third in the concert hall will, I think, always be hampered by the last concert I heard of this symphony fifteen years ago. That remains one of the most spiritual twenty-five minutes I’ve ever encountered in a concert hall, a moment of true communion between a conductor and his audience. To his credit, Andris Nelsons generated moments that were sublime - some of the accents were written in very dark ink, especially from the solid lower strings of the orchestra, and there was an intensity to some of the phrasing that was indelibly closer to lamentation than had been achieved anywhere else in the performance. The Boston violins soared, and their pain wasn’t at all tempered by anaesthetic. The brass chorales - trumpets ringing out hymns in mighty unison, to be joined by horns - were distinguished and resounding. When the coda finally arrived, it was driven with a ferocity from the timpani that defied Nietzsche and forced open the gates of heaven.

There is unquestionably some music Andris Nelsons conducts well and his Mahler certainly edges towards being distinctive. He’s a beautiful conductor to watch, too; the elegance of his gestures, sometimes using just his hands to shape the music instead of a stick, achieve much. He is never over-wrought in this music, and clearly gets what he wants from his orchestra. This was a performance that didn’t touch greatness, but neither was it one that fell at every hurdle either. And only time will tell whether this reviewer will ever brave Mahler again in the concert hall.

Marc Bridle

Gustav Mahler - Symphony No.3 in D minor

Susan Graham - mezzo-soprano, Andris Nelsons - conductor, CBSO Chorus and CBSO Youth Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra

Royal Albert Hall, London - 2nd September, 2018

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