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Mahler, Third Symphony: Petra Lang (mezzo), London Philharmonic Choir, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, 12.12.2007 (JPr)

Although it isn't the Mahler anniversary years until  2010 and 2011, during the space of four months we have already had three performances in London of the Third Symphony and other Mahler  has been performed regularly during this period. The important thing about these performances is that they have been so very different from each other, apart obviously from the notes on the page. This is  why Mahler’s music is so endlessly fascinating.

Abbado’s introspective and self-absorbed reading in August, was quiet and oh, so spiritual. With hindsight, we can guess that  it was the result of the conductor not knowing at that time what would shortly be  in store for him because soon afterwards there was a hiatus for him from the podium due to illness;  thankfully he has been conducting again recently. Then, in September, Gergiev launched his Mahler cycle with this symphony, assailing us with an exciting performance that seemed like a complete review of Mahler’s influence on twentieth-century Russian music,  as well as being extremely Tchaikovskian. The third Third was conducted (virtually dissected) by another very distinguished Russian conductor, but this time from a much earlier generation: Gennadi Rozhdestvensky is now in his 77th year.

Rozhdestvensky was born in Moscow and studied piano and conducting at the Conservatory where his teachers included his father, Nikolai Anossov. He made his conducting debut at the Bolshoi Theatre when he was only 20 in 1961,  and his British debut came five years later at Covent Garden where he led the touring Bolshoi Ballet in Sleeping Beauty.  He  became principal conductor of the Bolshoi in 1964, where he served until 1970, was  then artistic director of the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the Moscow Chamber Opera  and took over as artistic director of the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra from Antol Doráti in 1974. From 1978-1981, he  was principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and from 1981 to 1983 was principal conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

From 1982 onwards Rozhdestvensky  became director of the newly founded Symphony Orchestra of the Ministry of Education and Arts (Soviet Union) and subsequently held another  conducting post  in Stockholm  before becoming  chairman of the artistic committee of the Boshoi Theatre in Moscow. He has conducted most of the world’s leading orchestras and made countless recordings. A year after President Putin appointed him to lead the Bolshoi out of its post-Soviet decay, Rozhdestvensky resigned, prompting Moscow’s Izvestia to speak of a ‘scandalous dismissal’. He argued,  ‘It is alarming, that drive to entertain at any cost, to stupefy, to conceal real music.’ He was concerned that the great cultural institutions were dumbing down their offerings  to get audiences and that concert halls were booked with over-hyped, over-priced rock performers and imitation Broadway musicals, starring pop stars. Has  anyone looked at some of the listings for the Royal Festival Hall lately?

After a horrendous journey to the Festival Hall I entered the auditorium at the very last minute to a round of applause that I felt it was only fair to share with the orchestra coming out on the platform behind me! Then the conductor appeared and directed this massive symphony, orchestra, soloist and choirs in his unique way from the floor in front of them -
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky is famous for not using a podium. He proceeded, certainly with the first movement, to carry out a stately detailed analysis of the music.

Mahler thought about giving the Third Symphony a title, perhaps  Pan, after the Greek god of nature, or The Joyful Science, after one of Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical works,
Die fröhliche Wissenschaft. Ultimately he decided his audiences did not need to know anything about what inspired his music. The first movement is approximately one-third of the entire symphony and one of the largest single movements anywhere: it is also one of the most original and daring in the variety of music it contains. The opening theme  for eight horns, might well be a child's song. It is followed by a panoramic view of a great landscape and then ‘Summer marches in’ from a distance. The next four movements are relatively brief character pieces depicting flowers, animals, people, and angels. The second movement, the flower minuet, includes music that previews Das himmlische Leben (‘Heavenly Life’) which was to end the movement in Mahler’s original seven-movement concept, but belongs now  to the fourth symphony. The third movement, a kind of scherzo, is an orchestral version of the setting of Ablösung im Sommer (‘Relief in summer’), a Wunderhorn song. There are two trios, first a vision of birds and beasts playing; the second a still summer day, disturbed only by the distant posthorn call. The movement ends with a great eruption of sound, as if Pan has arrived to transform the world of birds and animals. The fourth movement introduces the sound of the human voice, a contralto setting of Midnight Song’ from Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra. The fifth movement follows without any pause, shifting from the hush of midnight to the bright sounds of angels and morning bells. This text also comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The voices are those of women's chorus, children, and the soloist; the violins are silent throughout. Again we recall ‘Heavenly Life’.


The final movement doesn't need description. It is marked ‘Slow. Peaceful. With feeling’. Mahler composed a little verse motto for a singer friend of his about it, ‘Father, see these wounds of mine! Let no creature of yours be lost!’ No-one who heard this symphony after hearing Parsifal at Covent Garden, will fail to recognise how Mahler must have been inspired by that work for its composition particularly here in this slow movement - so reminiscent of Wagner’s Act III Prelude - which has music as moving and powerful as any ever written.

Principal flautist Celia Chambers was retiring after this concert and there was sensitive expressive playing from her and her London Philharmonic Orchestra colleagues with fine contributions from the clarinets, trumpets (notably Paul Beniston and Anne McAneney) and the leader Boris Garlitsky. For me however, the trombone contribution from Mark Templeton was marred by some ugly breathing sounds and the posthorn (Brian Thompson’s flugelhorn) seemed insufficiently ethereal; too much of a ‘Last Post’. The women of the London Philharmonic Choir and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir fulfilled their brief duties with well-coached focused energy.

One of the world’s great mezzo-sopranos, Petra Lang, was on hand to sing a haunting, intense, totally engrossing ‘O Mensch, gib Acht!’ as only she can. Easily filling the hall even though she was behind the orchestra where the organ loft is, she sat otherwise impassively throughout the performance. Through her wonderful use of words and immaculate phrasing she was able to make light of Rozhdestvensky’s magisterial tempi.

If truth be told, the conductor made a long symphony even longer than necessary. The first movement seemed like ‘bleeding chunks’ from the rest of Mahler’s output including the tramping march of the Sixth, his rhythmic oar strokes from the Seventh and the ‘Abide with Me’ music of the Ninth; diverse musical elements rather than a cohesive whole. For the remainder of the symphony, things were much better even though still on the slow side. The flower minuet brought us hints of Rimsky-Korsakov but towards the end Rozhdestvensky (and Mahler’s genius) gave us a lush, yearning, prayerful melody that was almost overwhelming in its emotional power,   transcending any longueurs and weaknesses earlier in the performance to  earn all the performers a well-deserved and extended ovation.

Jim Pritchard


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