With nearly two hours of—hopefully—uninterrupted music to play in an era where a four-minute song seems to push the attention-span envelope, how does one prepare the way for a monumental work of art such as this evening’s Symphony No. 3 in D Minor?
Taking several Austrian summers to physically write down and life-to-date to envision/compose, is it really possible for today’s conductors and performers to truly fathom what’s behind every note and then communicate those findings to an international crowd of all ages?
As all things artistic, the answer is a resounding Yes-and-No—especially when the artists in questions are the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and music director Mariss Jansons.
The “Yes” is relatively simple for an ensemble of this calibre.
The actual notes did come to largely magnificent life. Exceptions were few: a sometimes wavering solo trombone (of course, it’s one of the most extended, difficult parts in the repertoire but others have cleared that daunting hurdle); solo and lower-voice French horns had their own share of misfires and uncertain pitch they’d all gladly have the recording-studio chance to redo; the offstage post horn with a beautifully-honed tone was close to a note-perfect miracle of distant colour when too much embouchure-squeeze slightly marred the result. On the plus side, the woodwinds chirped away vigorously or deftly wove their fine legato lines into the dense string fabric.
Marvellously in the closing “Langsam,” the other shoe finally dropped as the solo flute’s exquisite change of register conjured up Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll even as the overarching motif continued to evoke the “Finale” of Brahms’ mighty Symphony No. 1 in C Minor—what fun that it took Mahler to bring the two notoriously warring camps (more their admirers than themselves) together in the same score!
The percussionists were solid and effective whether the off-stage field drum, chorus-pitch-establishing chime or twin tympani that took no prisoners in the heady “V-I” conclusion.
Section by section the strings gave enormous pleasure even as the co-leaders readily established why they are in the front chairs when their solo turns came around. Yet, when collectively mixing with their bowed colleagues, woodwinds, brass, percussion and choirs the ensemble wasn’t as uniformly precise is its component parts.
Given all of that, the concert hall was awash in sonic exuberance—especially when the dynamic indications rose above mezzo-forte.
Yet oddly similar to Claudio Abbado’s Ninth Symphony just two weeks ago (cross-reference below), the potential for the music to sear the soul and leave palpitating hearts starved for life-giving emotional oxygen was sadly lacking.
To fully unravel the mystery and magic of Mahler, the conductor must plan his strategy as if he’d written the piece himself and—when on the podium—bring the aural canvas into consciousness as if imagining its collective ideas and power for the first time: living every note and fully realizing why the one that follows must be there.
As passionate and thoughtful as Jansons surely is, there were too major shortcomings that left most of the music sounding good but feeling empty. Watching his charges at work rather than guiding them through every cadence, harmonic surprise and detail of texture left him having more in common with the audience than being a musical diviner of truth. Incredibly and most instructively, after having arrived at the final chord, Jansons let his hands drop, trusting the players to carry on while admiring their collective efforts. Play the tape back and the fullness of that sound diminishes simultaneously—conductors ought to play their instrument and not release what they have so lovingly sculpted until its effect is complete.
Planning this spectacularly complex musical outing in easily digestible bits instead of an overarching musical construct (imagine shaping the motifs when first heard in a manner that would be at one with their coming recurrence or variants), pulling the inner voices into prominence instead of focussing too much on the “tune” would vastly improve both understanding and ensemble. Look no further than the low-string counterpoint towards the end of Part I for an example.
Thank goodness for alto Anna Larsson and the combined voices of women of the Swiss Chamber Choir and the Lucerne Children’s Choir. What should be the delectable icing on the orchestrally-rich cake turned out to be the main course of artistry. Not surprisingly, for the human voice can’t help but flow on breath, communicate (text and emotion) and—accordingly—inspire in a way that instrumentalists can only try to imitate (and some do just that exceptionally well).
If Jansons could rethink his strategy in a way that prepares the ear for the glory of the voice rather than being wonderfully surprised by it, the difference would be astonishing. JWR
Gustav Mahler, Mahler Symphony No. 3 in D Minor
Arkiv 23403, 1967
Rafael Kubelik, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Marjorie Thomas, alto; Tölz Boys Choir
Rafael Kubelik’s 1967 recording has much to admire but certainly couldn’t be considered as his definitive performance of the standard repertoire’s longest symphony (~100 minutes).
One is immediately struck by the thematic relationship to Brahms (main theme of the “Finale” from Symphony No. 1, the opening fragment of which becomes Mahler’s overarching motif) and Dvořák (Slavonic Dance Op. 46, No. 3 which has much to do with the “Comodo Scherzando Ohne Hast”). In the later, the off stage post horn is beautifully rounded and a marvel of control. The solo trombone interventions in Part I are another highlight; curiously, there are moments of near stagnation—an anomaly from the Czech maestro.
All is nearly forgiven (the Bavarian violins display flashes of spectacular colour, but aren’t pitch-unanimous when the range reaches to the heavens) in the closing “Ruhevoll.” Characteristically, Kubelik lets the music unfold thoughtfully, unhurried but still manages to keep the inner tension taut and the languid lines moving steadily forward. The brass are a model of delicacy in their chorale before the mighty work blossoms into greatness (the musical payoff of the seeds planed in “What the flowers in the meadow tell me”) before the music comes to a triumphant finish. JWR