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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D Minor (1893-96) [99:23]
Marjana Lipovsek (alto solo)
Wiener Sängerknaben; Frauenchor des Wiener Singverein
Bavarian State Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
rec. live, 16 September 2004, Grossen Saal, Vienna Musikverein. SACD
FARAO CLASSICS S108047 [61:48 + 37:35]
Experience Classicsonline

Although primarily known as an opera orchestra, the Bavarian State Orchestra holds its own annual series of symphony concerts at its home in the Bavarian State Opera. These are called the Academy Concerts. This recording comes from a tour of one of these concerts: Mahler’s Third Symphony, taken down live at Vienna’s legendary Musikverein.

The disc serves both as a wonderful Mahler recording and a tour souvenir; the programme note by a member of the orchestra describes the tour process. The orchestra members are named individually, which is a nice touch. Unfortunately the programme notes on the work itself are only in German.

From the outset, there is a richness and clarity to the sound, and the orchestra’s experience with opera comes through in Mahler’s dramatic and characteristic writing. Zubin Mehta’s relationship with this orchestra is clearly a good one; he draws out the best sounds from all the players and his phrasing has a wonderful sense of line and direction. The heavy, almost Wagnerian sound of the opening gives way to a lightness of touch when the music requires it, and at other times a sense of stately elegance overwhelms the scene.

Mahler’s music is at once hypnotic and schizophrenic; the constantly changing moods and characters need to be understood and portrayed with care, and this orchestra achieves this spectacularly. The recording is also very well balanced; the strong tuttis can be heard without being allowed to dominate, while the textural details of individual wind and brass instruments come through to just the right degree needed to be effective without distracting. The climaxes are similarly spectacular, with tension in the music building until the point of explosion.

The Third Symphony is one of my Mahler favourites, composed on an epic scale between 1893 and 1896. Serving as a tribute to nature, this is a monumental work in six movements. The first movement, with a duration of almost 35 minutes, forms the first part of the symphony, while the remaining five movements make up the second part. The opening movement has a programmatic outline of Pan waking up and calling summer in. With its spectacular closing bars, this movement is almost a complete work in itself, full of diversity of sound and character.

The mood changes completely for the opening of the second movement, with a charmingly simple minuet featuring a well-played oboe solo. Mahler’s ability to move from the large-scale to an intimate chamber music atmosphere is always something that has impressed me, and here the rich string sound is coloured by solo woodwind in a beautifully gentle dance. As is typical of this composer, the mood is interrupted and a new icier dance takes over, with rushing semiquavers and sudden changes of tempo. The earlier material returns as if it was always there in the background, an impressively judged juxtaposition which is performed here with apparent ease. Mehta uses a wonderfully elastic rubato in some sections, giving a sense of organic flow.

The bright opening of the third movement is immediately coloured by the minor key harmonies. There is a sense of foreboding here, and perhaps also an element of mysticism. This music was originally subtitled ‘what the animals in the forest tell me,’ and the upper strings provide shimmering light over the well-executed woodwind solo lines. A beautifully played trumpet solo is one of the highlights of the movement [tr. 11]. There is a sense with this performance that the conductor and orchestra are at one, taking the listener on a journey. Mahler’s music is thrilling, exhilarating and also somewhat comforting, working on many levels and in different ways. Mehta and the Orchestra present this in the best possible way, engaging the listener at all times and being thoroughly convincing in their musical message.

The vocal entry and sumptuous harmonies of the fourth movement make it a particularly stunning focal point in the symphony’s journey. There is a distinct stillness and sadness in ‘what man tells me’, with Marjana Lipovsek’s magnificent voice floating over the orchestra as she sings Nietzsche’s text of pain, heartache and death, while the oboe calls from eternity. This is a moment of contemplation within the symphony’s fast-moving flow of emotion and its effect is profound. This performance is expertly judged, with Mehta’s tempo creating its own sense of tension and space, stopping time momentarily.

The fifth movement takes its text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. It has an innocent and joyful character at the opening, as the choir sing of angels and joy. Typical of Mahler, though, the mood quickly darkens and a sense of turbulence takes over. The orchestral sound changes dramatically according to the mood, becoming heavier and lighter as necessary, and balancing the choir perfectly. This really is first class playing from all involved.

The final movement provides another sudden contrast, reaching from the Angels to Love, Mahler’s ultimate goal. The string melody here is one of my top five moments in the orchestral repertoire, and this rendition had a profound emotional effect. Mehta manages to create an emotionally expressive sound which does not wallow and is not over-played. The overall effect is one of naturalness, of unforced yearning. For me, this movement, and the way it is played here, is probably as close to musical perfection as it comes. The climactic moments are dramatic and one has the sense of the orchestra giving its all. The quiet material which follows has a wonderful sense of exhaustion, as if coming to the end of a journey. These moments are perfectly judged and force the listener to share in the emotional effects. The triumphant ending is one of the most dramatic and exciting I have heard, with the wonderful energy of this live performance captured for posterity.

It never ceases to amaze me that the hour and a half duration of this symphony goes by remarkably quickly, and upon every hearing I always have the sense of being made aware of some profound message which makes me somehow different from how I was before hearing the symphony. Mahler’s music deals with extremes of emotion from joy to harrowing pain, and the experience of listening can be both cathartic and awe-inspiring. Live performances of this symphony are relatively rare, but with recordings of this quality I would highly recommend setting aside the time every now and again to listen through from beginning to end. This particular recording has the intensity of a live performance, with world class playing and a considered interpretation in which the individual personalities involved in the performance dissolve into the greater whole of Mahler’s inspiring music. Completely unmissable.

Carla Rees 

Tony Haywood's comparative survey of Mahler 3 recordings

 


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