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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 (1893/96) [101.28]
Gerhild Romberger (contralto)
Augsburger Domsingknaben,
Frauenchor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Bernard Haitink
rec. live 15/17 June 2016 Philharmonie, Munich
German texts included. No English translations.
BR KLASSIK 900149 [35.49 + 65.39]

On this BR Klassik release the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, under distinguished conductor Bernard Haitink, plays Mahler’s Third Symphony in live concerts at Philharmonie, Munich. A greatly experienced Mahlerian, Haitink first recorded the Third Symphony fifty years ago, back in 1966, as part of a complete cycle with the Concertgebouw on Philips. Here Haitink presides over a quite magnificent rendition of this awe-inspiring work.
Mahler’s Third Symphony is one of the supreme and towering creations in classical music. It is Mahler’s longest symphony, lasting in excess of an hour and a half and requiring massive orchestral forces in the manner of his Second Symphony ‘Resurrection’ and his Eighth Symphony ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. Composed in 1893/96, mainly during summer holidays at Steinbach am Attersee close to Salzburg, Mahler’s Third Symphony is his view of the vast natural world, a subject that was an enduring passion for the composer throughout his life. Mahler said his Third Symphony was “one great hymn to the glory of every aspect of creation.” Major influences were the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the collection of German folk poems Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn). In 1907, around the time of completing his Eighth Symphony Sibelius remembered Mahler saying “the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

Mahler’s symphony evolved as a seven movement score, however, the work’s final structure was in six movements divided into two parts. On the handwritten manuscript Mahler gave titles to each of the movements, to serve as signposts to understanding, but these did not subsequently appear on the printed score.

The first part is a single movement titled ‘Pan Awakes. Summer Marches In’, which opens in a declamatory character with a fanfare from the bank of horns and hammering drum strikes. Mahler has created a cornucopia of natural sounds with a prominent sense of stirring, contrasted with an episodic martial character to which Haitink and his Bavarian players respond with substantial vigour and often impassioned orchestral splendour. Titled ‘What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me’, the second movement has the form of a minuet. Haitink revels in such wonderful joyous writing with its prevailingly refined disposition. It really does feel like looking out on a flower strewn Alpine meadow, such a familiar and treasurable scene for Mahler. In the Scherzo movement three, ‘What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me’ Mahler draws on his song ‘Ablösung im Sommer’ (Relief in Summer; Changing of Summer) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. In Haitink’s hands the music feels like a portrayal of the transformation in the forest from day into night. Titled ‘What Man Tells Me’, movement four (with a solo contralto part) is a setting of ‘Zarathustra’s Midnight Song’ that begins ‘O man! Take heed/care!’ from Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Also sprach Zarathustra over a rocking orchestral rhythm. In a haunting rendition German contralto Gerhild Romberger displays her smooth, creamy voice to significant effect creating a sensual atmosphere. Upbeat and agreeably boisterous, the short fifth movement titled ‘What Angels Tell Me’ includes choruses of women and children with the contralto soloist again singing text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn over a rocking orchestral rhythm. This is impressive singing from the Augsburger Domsingknaben and Frauenchor des Bayerischen Runfunks that communicates warm sincerity. The ‘Finale’, a considerable adagio with the title ‘What Love Tells Me’ is aptly described by Philip Barford in his BBC Music Guide Mahler Symphonies and Song as “a flood of glorious music [which] majestically unfolds a magnificent paean of love.” Committed and intense, this is a riveting account from Haitink and his Bavarian players an interpretation of considerable spirituality with the ‘Finale’ culminating in a remarkable apotheosis.

In taking a firm grasp on the proceedings, this interpretation from Haitink is beautifully paced with especially well chosen tempos. The radio orchestra furnish the music with unerring concentration and an excellent depth of expression. I savour the lovely body to the strings, while most expressive woodwind and the magnificent brass uphold the orchestra’s reputation with credit. There are more passionate and dramatic recordings around than this from Haitink but few with as much sincerity and sense of total engagement, or as gloriously played. Recorded live at Philharmonie, Munich the engineering team for BR Klassik has provided satisfying sound with good presence, pleasing balance and the clarity has reasonable detail. The booklet notes are informative with a good essay. German sung texts are included but disappointingly there are no English translations.

There are a number of recommendable recordings of Mahler’s Third Symphony in the catalogue. These are accounts that I greatly admire and play often: Claudio Abbado conducts a captivating performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall on Deutsche Grammophon. Also admirable is Abbado with the ardent Lucerne Festival Orchestra recorded live in 2007 on Medici Arts DVD/Blu-ray. Presenting no problem to me are the emotional excesses of Leonard Bernstein’s spellbinding account with the NYPO from 1961 at Manhattan Center, NYC on CBS now Sony. Bernstein and the NYPO recorded the work again in 1987 at Avery Fisher hall, NY on Deutsche Grammophon, an account that feels rather more self indulgent but is still stunning. Somewhat lesser known is the accomplished live 1967 account from the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Rafael Kubelik recorded live at Herkulessaal, Munich on Audite. This live Haitink account on BR Klassik has real gravitas and is certainly worthy of joining my recommendation list.

Michael Cookson



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