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Mahler Symphony No 3: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Vassily Sinaisky (conductor) Susan Bickley (mezzo) Ladies of the CBSO Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus. Birmingham Symphony Hall, 13.10.2010. (GR)

First up in this season’s ambitious Birmingham Mahler Cycle was a blockbusting performance of the Eighth Symphony last month (see review). Second on their advertised schedule was the Third, another mind-blowing contribution from the musical world of Gustav Mahler. The CBSO were again on duty in the Birmingham Symphony Hall on Oct 13th, this time under the baton of guest conductor Vassily Sinaisky. Glyn Pursglove has recently and comprehensively covered much of the background to the work (on this site, following a Cardiff performance on Oct 1st) so this will not be repeated here. However, reference to the much-quoted Schoenberg comment regarding the good and evil forces surrounding one another is pertinent.

I thought that the Sinaisky interpretation gave the ‘good’ too easy a ride in order to triumph over the ‘evil’. It was this observation that kept surfacing throughout my appreciation of this particular rendition of the six-movement masterpiece.   The razor-sharp military calls from the CBSO horns began Part I. They indicated that forces of some sort were being galvanised – nature had been summoned. Although Mahler had played down the initial verbal descriptions he gave to each movement, they cannot (and should not) be ignored. Here his original title was Summer marches in. And although there were some dark moments of resistance, the prevailing consonance and recurring tunes ensured that summer was not frozen out by winter. One factor I thought that lessened the agitation was Sinaisky’s arrangement of the strings.

Two years ago on this very arena, Ivan Fischer had split the first and second violins of the Budapest Festival Orchestra on opposite flanks of the platform, giving an added suggestion of conflict during the extended tremolo sections; Sinaisky applied the more conventional arrangement. Other pacifiers of the combat were the tranquil solo violin breaks of CBSO leader Laurence Jackson, whose communication between Sinaisky and the string sections contributed much to the cohesion of the whole orchestra. Naturally the trombones played a huge part; the tones of leader Edward Jones were exquisite, changing the delivery angle of the instrument’s bell to achieve his desired effect. The percussion section were also on top form and a special recognition goes to James Strebing for whom Saturday’s repeat Mahler concert was his last with the CBSO; he picked a cracker from which to retire and bid farewell. Timed at 32 min, this version may have been a little shorter than some, and Sinaisky, not the most flamboyant of baton-wielders, never let the pace drag. But I thought some of the starkness of nature was missing – overcome by the pastoral side of the music, too pretty to represent the awakening by Pan, too smooth a ride.

The initial skirmishes over, the second movement’s Tempo di menuetto began – peace restored in a meadow. Mahler did not want his stroll through the countryside disturbed – he said as much with his indications of Don’t hurry on the score. Sinaisky did take it at a leisurely pace (although I have experienced the prelude to Part II at an even more relaxing tempo) a romantic saunter that allowed the beauty of the surroundings to be absorbed. And there were many magnificent plant creations to appreciate. One prize bloom was the solo oboe of Rainer Gibbons begun in the first few bars, a theme that gradually developed into a swell from the whole orchestra. This stirring of the undergrowth reminded me of Wordsworth’s line Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. The folkdance episode was also delightful, as always. Not that our bucolic meandering was idyllic, being reminded of the cruel side of nature in the guise of a prickly thistle or two from the woodwind section.  

The woodwinds continued to hog the limelight in the scherzo, portraying the fun and games of the animals from the forest. All was harmonious at first, no hierarchy struggles, the flutes and pizzicato strings frolicking together. To a theme taken from Ablösung im Sommer (one of the Wunderhorn songs) the lovely sweet nightingale was sprightly and merry. But the natural world continues to evolve and the ‘change’ predicted in the text of the song was inevitable, arriving via the magical offstage posthorn of Jonathan Quirk. Sounding from just about the right distance, the balance of nature was disturbed – a stunning breathtaking moment. No longer was there a balmy atmosphere with various factions at each other’s throats – it was the horrible, panic-like humour Mahler had termed that section. Was it man’s fault?

The fourth Misterioso movement also had much to say, most of it from mezzo soloist Susan Bickley. Here Mahler had applied the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, a symphonist of words. O Mensch had been taken from Nietzsche’s atheistic gospel of aspiration embodied in the figure of Übermensch (the 'Superman' who transcends the boundaries of class, creed and nationality). Bickley’s repetitions of Gib Acht were haunting, atmospheric and crystal clear – a spine-tingling ‘mymahler’ moment ( The upward glissando of the woodwind applied the modern interpretation of Mahler’s hinaufziehen to perfection – the spitting image of a wailing cat rather than any birdsong.

In contrast, the joyful bells from top right of the choir-stalls rang in time to the opening Bimm Bamm of the female voices. The Ladies of the CBSO Chorus and the CBSO Youth Chorus were delightfully on song and brought the tone back to the simple Wunderhorn world. Rightly their discourse with Bickley was full of heavenly joy, represented as childish innocence. With such a minor role both choirs must be congratulated for their discipline when out of the spotlight.

Sinaisky saved perhaps his most luminous contribution for the sixth and final movement. Coaxing a truly Mahlerian sound from the CBSO, they reproduced the instructions of the score – slow, peaceful and above all with feeling. With a sense of contemplation, the final chapter of God’s love in Mahler’s hymn to the natural world was inexorably drawn out, leading to the triumphant conclusion.

Mahler’s Third is a work whose complexity always reveals something. The Sinaisky/CBSO version was noble and warm, thrilling and exuberant at times, but without any rough edges that some conductors exploit to advantage. And like Schoenberg, I didn’t experience that vision of Mahler’s very soul naked, stark naked.

Geoff Read


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