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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 (1896) [99.23]
Marjana Lipovsek (alto)
Vienna Boys Choir, Women’s Voices of the Vienna Singverein
Bavarian State Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
Rec 16 Sept 2004, Vienna Musikverein
FARAO CLASSICS B 108 046 [61.48 + 37.35]

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The Third Symphony is the ultimate example of Mahler's concept of 'the symphony as a world'. Its six movements treat pantheistic images of Creation and Nature, of Man and God, during a time-span of some ninety minutes. Here the Human Tragedy is placed in the context of the wider world. The huge first movement concentrates on the cosmic power of Nature, the remaining five on other aspects of Creation: plants, animals, man, angels and finally God.

The first four of Mahler's symphonies are all closely linked with songs: the First with the Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), and the Second, Third and Fourth with the anthology based on folk-poems gathered under the collective title Das Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth's Magic Horn). Therefore these works are linked both psychologically and spiritually; in fact the song-finale of the Fourth Symphony, the Wunderhorn song Das Himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life), was originally conceived as the seventh and final movement of the Third Symphony. Although Mahler rejected this initial plan, fragments of the song are quoted in the Third's fifth movement, 'What the Angels tell me'.

This symphony is the largest and most ambitious expansion of symphonic form since Beethoven's Ninth, employing not simply a huge orchestra, but a contralto soloist, boys' choir, women's chorus and off-stage intrumentalists. While he was working on it, Mahler wrote: 'My symphony will be something the world has never heard before. In it, Nature herself acquires a voice and tells secrets so profound they are perhaps glimpsed only in dreams.'

This live performance from the Musikverein in Vienna has the benefit of a truthful recording whose perspective allows the spirit of the occasion to be felt by even the domestic listener. For example, the magnificent opening with eight unison horns makes a powerful effect but one that has the ambience of the concert hall acoustic. This first movement is a huge affair across a time span of more than half an hour. Much of it is slow, and much is restrained in dynamic, therefore placing a further burden upon the recording engineers. But the results are satisfying enough, and the Viennese audience seldom makes its presence felt through unwanted coughing.

Mehta is an experienced Mahlerian and he knows how to handle large and diverse forces. Thus the balancing of perspectives both in the orchestra and beyond, when offstage effects are required, is highly successful. What is less certain is the music’s symphonic direction and flow. To be fair, many performances struggle to maintain intensity, clarity and line during the final explosive bars of the first movement. Best of all remains Jascha Horenstein with the LSO on Unicorn (and as part of the first Brilliant Classics Mahler box). Mehta is in the majority in allowing this great movement to become an explosion of sound but little more.

Another doubt surrounds the chosen tempo in the last movement. True, the score marks this as Adagio, but like Lorin Maazel (Sony) before him, Mehta is so leisurely that he drains the music of its flow and pulse, making it sound indulgently slow. Moreover the charming Tempo di Menuetto second movement adopts a really unhurried tempo, when just a little more momentum would have been of benefit. Of course there is more than one way to perform a great symphony, but there are the subtleties that can mark a great performance.

Marjana Lipovsek is an excellent alto soloist in the fourth and fifth movements. The former, an intense setting of Nietzsche’s ‘Night Song of Zarathustra’, is particularly powerful in its darkly expressive way. The latter, with excellent Viennese choral contributions, proves the perfect foil. The offstage posthorn solo in the third movement is admirably played by Christian Bold, who thoroughly deserves his special mention on the CD cover.

As for the general production, standards of presentation are good but editorially there is a misconception that information about the particular performance and occasion outweighs all other considerations. There are no programme notes in English translation, and the texts are only in German. Therefore this issue may meet a better fate in Germany and Austria than it does elsewhere.

Terry Barfoot

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