Willem Mengelberg conducted the first Mahler symphony cycle in 1920
with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and since then this orchestra has become
more identified with Mahler’s music than any other. The Concertgebouw
sound is now recognised as the authentic Mahler sound‚ by turns dark,
gritty, sombre, raw, raucous, acidic. Whilst the Concertgebouw Orchestra
is said to be steeped in the Mahler tradition ironically the composer
himself stated that tradition is slovenly.
Mahler’s mammoth Symphony No. 3 vacillates between
the naive and the blasé and from the sublime to the ridiculous,
just as Mahler stated concerning his score "... the symphony must be
like the world. It must embrace everything." The kitsch titles he gives
the movement’s are largely meaningless because the music speaks of a
subconscious nature beyond the pictorial and the literal. Indeed, Mahler
stated that he was more concerned with the primordial voices of nature.
Eliahu Inbal was standing in for an indisposed Riccardo
Chailly. He conducted the score straight, no frills, without falling
into showman acrobatics or willful tempo changes. Having said that he
seemed to lack totally any nervous tension and rhythmic bite and on
the odd occasion lost the line of the music. This Mahler orchestra hardly
needed the somewhat anodyne conductor at all. Does a blind man lead
The first movement, around 35 minutes long, seems to
evoke the sinister side to nature. The awakening heart-beat of nature
is mimicked by the muffled throbbing of the bass drum, which the percussionist
delivered with murmuring menace. The melancholic trombone solo struck
a particularly sombre and mournful note, while the percussion and timpani
produced sounds of a militaristic threat. The two timpanists played
with a sensitive artistry which I have never heard bettered.
The second movement is very folksy, but the playing
resisted any trace of sentimentality, notably in the brilliant solo
of flautist Emily Beynon. Likewise, the third movement’s off stage
posthorn had a distilled magic that saved it from sinking into saccharine,
although it seemed to drag on a bit. This movement ended with a spectacular
fortissimo firework display of sounds which sent out electric shock
I find the fourth and fifth movements the weakest sections
of this hybrid symphony, almost verging on the tasteless. The London
Symphony Chorus women's voices and the Trinity Boys Choir were precise
if rather lacking in passion - A+ for neatness, C- for attack. The boy
choir mimicking the bells (bim bam babies?) is the most embarrassing
part of the symphony.
Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung was adequate rather
than inspired during her Nietzsche number, ‘O Mensch!' It was
in the swooning, lyrical passage which immediately follows her solo
that Inbal lost his tempo. This was just one of the occasions when the
orchestra should have kept their eyes on the dots and played from instinct
and the memory of finer maestros.
The last section, which comprises a slow movement and
the finale, opened with some of the most exquisite string playing I
have ever heard; it melted and floated, soared into the roof of the
hall, hung suspended and then descended on the audience like a sweet
gas. It was left to the brilliant timpanists Marinus Komst and
Gerard Schooenberg to ground the symphony, displaying a final burst
of their brilliant technique in the awesome chords of the finale. They
quite rightly received an ovation for their inspired playing, as did
all the other soloists and the entire orchestra.
There are those who believe that the Concertgebouw
is the world’s finest orchestra. I am one of them.