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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1896) [95.51]
Anna Larsson (contralto)
Clara-Schumann-Jugendchor (chorus master: Justine Wanat)
Frauenchor des Städtischer Musikverein Düsseldorf (chorus master: Marieddy Rossetto)
Düsseldorfer Symphoniker / Ádám Fischer
Frank Ludemann (posthorn solo)
rec. live, 9-13 November 2017 Tonhalle, Düsseldorf
No sung text included
Mahler Edition vol. 5
CAVI-MUSIC 8553399 [33.50 + 62.01]

Mahler’s Third Symphony is a colossal work that embodies the composer’s epoch-making concept of the symphonic form. Attending a performance is always a special event. Not having heard the work in concert for several years, this September I was delighted to report from an outstanding performance of the work with the touring Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons with soloist Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano) as part of Musikfest Berlin 2018. Now, just a few months after my return from Berlin, I am delighted that this new recording of Third Symphony has arrived for review. Released on CAvi-music, this is the latest release (vol. 5) in the ongoing series of the complete Mahler symphonies from the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker under its principal conductor Ádám Fischer. Incidentally I interviewed Ádám Fischer at Semperoper at the time of Dresdner Musikfestspiele 2018.

A paean to nature created by God is the essence of Mahler’s Third Symphony and his belief that the world, through nature and God, can be made a better place. Mahler said the Third 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 (Youth’s Magic Horn). Requiring massive orchestral forces, the Third Symphony is one of the supreme and towering creations in classical music. Composed in 1893-96, mainly during summer holidays at Steinbach am Attersee close to Salzburg, the symphony evolved as a seven-movement score. However, the work’s final structure is six movements divided into two parts. The opening part is a single movement and part two has five movements. 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 monumental single movement titled ‘Pan Awakes. Summer Marches In’ opens with a declamatory character with a fanfare from the bank of horns and hammering drum strikes. Mahler creates a cornucopia of nature sounds with a prominent sense of stirring, contrasted with an episodic martial character to which Ádám Fischer and his Düsseldorfer players respond intelligently with an often impassioned orchestral splendour. The three solos for the principal trombone are entirely captivating, portraying a sense of Pan, the God of Nature while the martial associations probably reflect the military music Mahler heard during his youth at a local barracks. At times, to my ears the sound was so soft it was almost inaudible, even using headphones, resulting in what feels like gaps in the music. Titled ‘What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me’ the second movement (the first movement of Part Two) uses elements of what was then a rarely used minuet form with Fischer and his players revelling in such wonderful joyous writing with its prevailingly refined disposition. It really feels like a depiction of a flower-strewn Alpine meadow, such a familiar and treasurable scene for Mahler. In the Scherzando third movement, ‘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 Fischer’s hands the music feels like a tone poem portraying the transformation in the forest from day into night. Frank Ludemann is in outstanding form with his extended and challengingly exposed part for posthorn. Titled ‘What Man Tells Me’, movement four (with its solo alto part) is a setting of Zarathustra’s Midnight Song that begins ‘O man! Take heed!’ from Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Also sprach Zarathustra, over a rocking orchestral rhythm. The soloist Anna Larsson gives a rendition of compelling intimacy. With her quietly assured manner, the Swedish contralto displays her deep, smooth voice to significant effect, creating a most sensual atmosphere. The horn and woodwind playing is outstanding here. Upbeat and agreeably boisterous, the short fifth movement titled ‘What Angels Tell Me’ includes choruses of women and children with soloist Larsson singing a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. There is some fine singing from the well prepared Clara-Schumann-Jugendchor and Frauenchor des Städtischer Musikverein Düsseldorf, communicating 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.” Wholeheartedly committed here, this account from Fischer and Düsseldorfer Symphoniker is compelling with the conclusion culminating in a remarkable apotheosis.

Fischer presides over a performance of real sincerity containing many inspiring moments juxtaposed with some ordinary ones, especially in the opening movement. This unevenness of inspirational depth disappoints compared to the recent Berlin performance I attended from the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons and the fierce competition provided from several accounts in the record catalogue. Recorded in conjunction with Deutschlandfunk, based during live performances at Tonhalle, Düsseldorf, the sound quality has reasonable clarity although I strain to hear some of the quieter moments which necessitates much volume adjustment. As with others in this Düsseldorf series, ideally I prefer slightly more depth to the sound picture. Although recorded live there is very little extraneous noise. In the booklet Ádám Fischer expresses his thoughts on the Third Symphony in addition to a helpful essay by Jens Schubbe. A real drawback is the lack of German texts with English translations.

There are several recommendable recordings of Mahler’s Third Symphony in the catalogue. Claudio Abbado conducts an entirely captivating performance with Berliner Philharmoniker recorded live at Philharmonie, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon. Admirable, too, is Abbado with the ardent Lucerne Festival Orchestra recorded live in 2007 on Medici Arts DVD/Blu-ray. I relish the emotional excesses of Leonard Bernstein’s spellbinding account with the NYPO from 1961 at Manhattan Center, NYC on CBS now Sony. Bernstein and NYPO recorded the work again in 1987 at Avery Fisher Hall, NY on Deutsche Grammophon, an account that feels rather self-indulgent at times but still stunning. Somewhat lesser known is the accomplished and moving live 1967 account from the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Rafael Kubelik, recorded live at the Herkulessaal, Munich on Audite. Top of my recommendation list is Bernard Haitink’s riveting live 2016 Philharmonie, Munich account with Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and contralto Gerhild Romberger, which has real gravitas on BR Klassik. Undoubtedly this is a fine account from Ádám Fischer but without sufficient inspiration for inclusion in this elevated league.
Michael Cookson

Previous review: Michael Wilkinson

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