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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 60: Mahler, Symphony No. 3

Yvonne Naef, (mezzo-soprano) The Cleveland Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, 30th August 2005 (AO)


Hearing an orchestra of this calibre is always a special occasion. Fresh from Lucerne, where they played alongside the cream of European musicians, the Cleveland Orchestra  came to London in style, complete with their own chorus.  The orchestra have had Mahler's Third in their repertoire for a long time, and it was interesting to discover what insights their new conductor Franz Welser-Möst would bring to the work.


The Third is perhaps the most vivacious of Mahler's symphonies."It is," the composer wrote, "the most carefree music I have ever written, as carefree as only flowers can be."   Understanding Mahler's own thoughts on the symphony may be the key to understanding how any interpretation works because this symphony is different, revealing as it does another facet of the complexity that made up Mahler's musical psyche.

Welser-Möst seems to have absorbed the background to the symphony deeply and connected it to the sound world of Mahler's youth.  The composer scattered his images freely - marches,  Wunderhorn tunes, posthorns heard from afar and so on. This is uncommonly graphic music, conjuring up an elaborate world of memories and feelings. 

In this performance, both conductor and orchestra had the finesse to bring out detail vividly enough to offer an insight into the influences that had helped create Mahler's world-view.  Here was an intelligent young man absorbing the sounds of the local garrison, watching swaggering soldiers flirt with maidservants, their lives regulated by the sound of bugles.  And while this was going on, the composer was also exploring the mysteries of folk wisdom and idiom, which would draw him later into the Wunderhorn ethos with its sounds of nature, bird song, music heard from distant peaks and of “woodland murmurs” to borrow a Wagnerian phrase. 

The Clevelanders, with all their renowned panache, also brought out the anarchic 'two fingers to order' that runs through the symphony like a subversive pulse.  Mahler's original notes mention Pan, the mythic god whose zest for  life represented a challenge to convention and established values.  Players this good can carry off these sardonic passages with strength, not clumsiness, so they are heard (within the context of the whole) to represent the very spirit of life and its vigour. And it is this acute love of life that may be the true basis of Mahler's deep sense of loss and death - rather than grief caused by specific deaths as is so often supposed.  The posthorn solo here was played with exquisite grace and beauty, almost overwhelmingly poignant, gloriously phrased.  This playing expressed such profound emotion that it seemed to be at the core of this interpretation's evocation of Mahler's spirit.  It was stunning and its memory lingered, informing everything that was to follow.

Yvonne Naef's solo was adequately performed but her voice was a tad too light to express the ever deepening circles of “Tief ! Tief”!, particularly given the richness and colour of the instrumental accompaniment.  Had it matched the orchestra for expressive depth, it would have drawn a listener far deeper into the emotional experience indicated by question “Was spricht die tiefe  Mitternacht ?”  Similarly, the chorus was also good but not nearly in the same league as the orchestra.  Somewhat underpowered, they seemed restrained rather than exuberant.  Given that the interpretation, to this point, had made so much of the music's vivacity and life affirming attributes, the chorakl singing muted the overall impact of what could have been a very vibrant performance indeed. Since these two movements are so crucial to the symphony's trajectory as a whole, more emotional pressure was placed on the orchestra to return on message in the final part.

They delivered.  The long, slow passages were finely sculpted, with the  lyrical purity that comes from musicians who have the technique and taste to express their love for the music by letting it breathe.  Mahler's recurrent use of themes of death, ultimately seek transcendence and an even more profound love of life. This sophisticated concept, benefitted fully from the polish that this orchestra can produce. In the Empfunden, all the colours of the orchestra come wholly into their own with wonderful, heartfelt playing, evoking not mere bombast but a truly serene, confident sense of “Seligkeit”.

It has been fashionable lately in some circles to condemn Welser-Möst's conducting, so much so that this judgement probably influences casual listeners. In this performance  however, both he and his players made a sustained effort to reach the emotional heart of this symphony, and through it to reveal real insights into Mahler's musical psyche.  For me, it was important to listen to what these musicians “said”,  or in a pun on the discarded working titles of the movements, “What the music tells me.”  Welser-Möst and the Clevelanders had plenty to tell indeed.


Anne Ozorio




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