Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1893-1896, rev. 1906) [104:14]
Mihoko Fujimora (alto)
Knaben des Bamberger Domchores/Werner Pees
Damen des chores der Bamberger Symphoniker/Tobias Hiller
Bamberger Symphoniker-Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie/Jonathan Nott
rec. live, 25-28, 30 May 2010, Joseph-Keiberth-Saal, Konzerthalle Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany. Sung texts provided
TUDOR 7170 [34:45 + 69:29]
As predicted this double centenary has produced a flood of Mahler discs, some - such as Vladimir Ashkenazy’s Eloquence Mahler 3 - dredged from the archives, others newly recorded. Among the very best of the latter is Jonathan Nott’s Bamberg Resurrection - review - which made amends for a flawed First and went straight to the top of my list of picks for 2010. After such a fiercely committed performance - helped by a superb recording - I had high hopes for this new Third.
And let’s not forget the competition; Claudio Abbado DG accounts from Vienna and Berlin, David Zinman’s for Sony, the classic Jascha Horenstein set - now available on Souvenir Records - and, in one of his very best Mahler recordings, James Levine’s on RCA. All are deeply affecting - and affectionate - performances of this most open-hearted work, and they’re well recorded to boot. There’s also a new SACD from RCO Live with Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw, which I have yet to hear.
Nott begins well enough, those eight horns promising a glorious summer, although the eruptive timps are nowhere near as seismic as they can be. A worrying portent, but at least the ensuing shudder of brass is well caught; indeed, Mahler’s orchestral colours emerge with a crystalline clarity that - for a short while - enchants the ear. Alas, that’s not enough in a symphony that needs to capture one’s heart as well; and that becomes less and less likely as Nott’s deliberate tempi all but bring this march-led movement to a juddering halt. Not very entschieden I’m afraid, and it’s not helped by the conductor’s tendency to highlight and parenthesise, a habit I first noticed in his Mahler 1.
After such a sunless start the gloom just deepens; what a strangely uninspired reading this is, lacking the impact and insight of that fabulous ‘Resurrection’. Dip into any of the recordings I mentioned earlier and the contrast could not be greater; all have an undisguised ebullience - a vital, liberating energy - that’s sorely lacking here. Speaking of contrasts, Nott underplays Mahler’s mood swings, robbing the music of all its light and shade. Even the recording - on both stereo layers - is somewhat ill-defined in the tuttis.
All is not lost, for there’s some gorgeous playing in the second movement; others do bring out more of the music’s naïve charm - Zinman’s wonderfully aerated reading is especially memorable - but there’s no denying the exquisite detail uncovered by the Tudor team. That’s also true of the Comodo Scherzando, but there’s little of the spontaneity that Abbado finds in this music, Markus Mester’s nicely distant post-horn solo surprisingly prosaic. As for the rapt legato phrases that follow, they have the same halting, ragged quality I noticed in Ashkenazy’s Third. Abbado is peerless here, his Vienna performance simply magical.
What really seems to separate enduring Mahler performances from mundane ones is the conductors’ ability to seize and sustain those long spans. Not only that, they need to be alive to Mahler’s innate theatricality, the extravagant gestures and small genuflections that suffuse these great symphonies. I sense none of those qualities here; indeed, Nott strikes me as wilful in the extreme, a suspicion that hardens into firm conviction with the dirge-like fourth movement. Misterioso it isn’t, Nott’s life-denying tempo all but extinguishing an already weak pulse. One has to sympathise with Japanese contralto Mihoko Fujimora, who’s taxed beyond endurance. Mahler’s luminous setting is reduced to a grey lament; unforgivable, really.
It’s looking pretty desperate at this point; the boys choir is adequate but, in keeping with what’s gone before, there’s little spark or charm. I began to dread the long final movement, one of Mahler’s most radiant creations, and for good reason. Abbado and Levine are profoundly moving here, the music unfolding with an epic grandeur that’s utterly lacking in Nott’s etiolated account. As for the efflorescing tuttis they aren’t properly prepared for, so when they arrive they seem entirely random and hopelessly overblown.
By unhappy coincidence the last Mahler 3 I reviewed - Ashkenazy’s - was a major disappointment, the like of which I didn’t expect to hear any time soon. Sadly, Nott’s version is scarcely an improvement, crippled as it is by the kind of expressive liberties that give these symphonies a bad name.
You have been warned.
Dan Morgan
You have been warned.