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PROMS 2002

REVIEW 1: PROM 52: Mahler Symphony no 3, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, Michelle de Young (alto), Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus and Trinity Boys Choir, Eliahu Inbal (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, BBC Proms, 28 August 2002 (AR)

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 a guide-dog?

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 waves.

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.

Alex Russell







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