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12 Nov 2019

Mahler’s Third Symphony launches Prague Symphony Orchestra's UK tour

The Anvil in Basingstoke was the first location for a strenuous seven-concert UK tour by the Prague Symphony Orchestra - a venue-hopping trip, criss-crossing the country from Hampshire to Wales, with four northern cities and a pit-stop in London spliced between Edinburgh and Nottingham.

Mahler Symphony No.3 - Prague Symphony Orchestra at The Anvil, Basingstoke

A review by David Truslove

Above: Ester Pavlů

Photo credit: Josef Rabara

 

A gruelling travel itinerary with five performances of the longest symphony in the standard repertoire doesn’t necessarily make a comfortable ride in terms of logistics, especially when two choirs (women’s and children’s voices) need to be locally sourced for several performances. Little wonder on opening night there was a sense of an orchestra holding back, keeping its collective powder dry. Pacing is everything on an orchestral tour, and a similar sense of keeping something in reserve might also be applied to the Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen whose efficient and understated direction of this gargantuan work (played without an interval and coming in at about one hour and forty minutes) drew some fine, if uneven, playing from his Czech forces.

With its extraordinary blend of the sublime and the commonplace, Mahler’s Third Symphony - written in an unassuming little hut in the middle of an Alpine field - inhabits a sweeping grandeur that inflates the genre well beyond convention. Its mix of garish marches, rustic folk tunes and hymn-like apotheosis bring together a celebration of the natural world along with high-minded ideals from Nietzsche, all compressed into an ambitious design that confounded William Walton who declared, ‘It’s all very well, but you can’t call that a symphony’. It’s a work fraught with challenges, not least the need to integrate its earthy and exalted manner into a satisfying and coherent whole. In many respects Inkinen met this challenge head on, creating a handsome, well-judged account that grew in stature and emotional power, By the end I was won over, largely by his impressive control over its vast structure. This was no flawless account by any means, but there was sufficient certainty of direction and accuracy of playing to engineer no small achievement.

The striding opening theme was cleanly despatched by eight horns and heralded a thirty-minute plus span of accumulating momentum and drama. The Anvil’s bright acoustic allowed plenty of detail to register, and for the most part the orchestra produced a well-balanced tone, if a tad lightweight from its eight double basses. Occasionally, there could have been more rhythmic bite, as in the somewhat limp upward scales from the lower strings - marked to be played wild and triple forte. Elsewhere, the solo violin might have been more tender and the solo trombone less effortful. But the playing overall gave full expression to the gravitas and jollity of Mahler’s vision, with plenty of swagger in climaxes where a shrieking piccolo and two timpanists were not afraid to come to the fore.

There was a gentle nod to indulgence in the Minuet, its summer flowers charmingly lit by oboe and pizzicato strings at the start and thence a flowing account in which playful woodwind brought much effervescence to this musical Garden of Eden. If the creatures of the forest (as Mahler once subtitled his third movement) needed a little more definition, there was no escaping the clarity of the post-horn. Despite being hidden away in a corridor, Marek Zvolánek’s trumpet scorched the air with no chance of sounding distant and realising the composer’s evocation of primal innocence.

Ester Pavlů was a poised and rich-toned mezzo-soprano for her ‘Midnight Song’, and as her intonation and sense of involvement developed so the movement gained in intensity. Hopes to hear the mournful rising third from first oboe (marked hinaufziehen - drawn upwards) remained unfulfilled - a shame as it’s a characterful quirk from Mahler. Apart from its suggestive cry of a night bird, its ear-catching glissando is surely endorsed by the composer’s wish that ‘the whole of nature finds a voice’.

Pavlů was joined by the women of the Brighton Festival Chorus and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir who acquitted themselves with conspicuous joy and forthright tone in the ‘angels’ movement - Peter’s journey to heaven. They were easily heard above the clangour of tubular bell and too when softer dynamics demanded, the whole aided and abetted by a no-nonsense tempo. It was the heaven-storming Adagio, ‘ What love tells me’, that found Inkinen in his element. This was a wonderfully translucent reading; noble and of searching inwardness, with solo flute and resplendent brass adding to the rapt serenity and eventual triumph, this last thrillingly captured by unrestrained timpani. If earlier playing had occasionally felt routine this was a superbly redemptive close and left me in no doubt of this conductor’s promising future.

David Truslove

Ester Pavlů (mezzo-soprano), Pietari Inkinen (conductor), Brighton Festival Chorus, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Prague Symphony Orchestra,

The Anvil, Basingstoke; Thursday 7th November 2019.

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