Sunday, May 08, 2011 Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Kevin Rogers
Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonia Orchestra continued their traversal of Mahler's symphonies with an outstanding account of what one might call his 'Pastoral' Symphony, the Third; such sustained concentration over nearly 110 minutes spoke of the extraordinarily superb musical partnership between conductor and orchestra.
Throughout, the unanimity of the playing was captivating. The Philharmonia clearly wanted to give its all. Some people around me complained that the players never smiled. Quite right that they did not: they were here to do a serious job: play with utter conviction and concentration in serious music. Characteristic with Maazel’s reading was his insistence in exploring many of the music’s facets without being indulgent: details were probed, tempos stretched excitingly, and, with woodwind and brass superb throughout (especially Byron Fulcher’s trombone contributions), their prominence was notable but without undue overbalance. The one miscalculation was the placing of the third movement’s ‘from afar’ posthorn: it was far too close.
The first movement’s opening horns were brought vividly to life: an apposite herald for the vastness (38 minutes here) of the symphony's ‘Part One’. The trajectory of the music (the march rhythms carrying the weight of everything) was clearly built, its on-edge, even dangerous stormy ascent to ultimate jubilation leaving one breathless. The opening of 'Part Two', a minuet, was wistful and delicate, with the Ländler sections in possession of their peasant ideals. The scherzo, rustic, occasionally visceral, its calm-before-the-storm gorgeous strings and woodwind, showed nature to be both beautiful and innocently cruel. In the fourth movement, Sarah Connolly (replacing the ill Christianne Stotijn), dressed in mourning black, delivered the opening of Friedrich Nietzsche’s 'Midnight Song’ (from “Also sprach Zarathustra”) with nonchalance, which added layers of mystery. This sober mood was removed with the innocence of the boys’ and ladies' invoking bells: the child-like setting was captured beautifully, reminding of Mahler’s ‘Heavenly Life’ that became the final movement of the Fourth Symphony (and originally meant as this symphony’s seventh): it was fun and cheeky. The lengthy and great Adagio that ended this monumental account allowed the string-players to display their superb abilities in glorious fashion. The cellos and double basses resonated powerfully whilst the violins were often able to soar. The staccato beats from the two timpanist at the close willed the music to greater heights, with the final chord stretching to infinity: a cathartic experience indeed.