Mahler may have turned away from the chain-of-creation programme in the original titles for the six movements of his Symphony No.3, but having been planted their imagery will never go away. Indeed, in a performance such as this from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons, the meaning behind the titles positively thrived.
Mahler’s mystical, insanely ambitious arc from Nature’s neutral, terrifying will-to-live to man’s full consciousness was launched in a thrilling account of the long (here about thirty-five minutes) first movement. Nelsons laid down its polarities with irresistible force – the horns barging in like a rugby scrum, their weight undermined by superbly characterised trombone and trumpet solos from respectively Toby Oft and Thomas Rolfs expressing blank, unfeeling Nature, which cast a long, shape-giving shadow over the whole Symphony. Nelsons gave each elements due prominence, which kept us guessing about the music’s direction, a brilliantly lit ambiguity that you feel would have pleased Mahler greatly. His sustaining a sense of shape and coherence among all the almost dysfunctional collisions of material was inspirational, nothing less, and the long pause was vital to let the impact of this extraordinary struggle for supremacy sink in. Tamara Smirnova’s violin solo played a major part in clinching the argument, and prepared the way for s compellingly played, ultra-evanescent account of the second ‘flowers’ movement, with the orchestra’s limpid playing just about keeping a purchase on its minuet identity.
There were two, perhaps two-and-half disappointments in the next three movements. Thomas Rolfs’s remote posthorn solo aside (on a real posthorn, with a couple of sob-like cracks adding to its haunting authenticity), Nelsons rather undersold the third movement's eruption of the Pan/Nature music – surely it’s one of the Symphony’s defining moments, if not its pivot point? – and Susan Graham (whose entrance to a dribble of clapping could easily have been averted) favoured over-characterised warmth for Erda-like stillness. She was spot-on for the fifth movement’s angels’ chorus (which reunited Nelsons with an element of his CBSO years). The all-girl CBSO Youth Chorus was fine, but reinforced my preference for boys here, with potential for a raw, unruly sound; the women from the CBSO Chorus brought light and delight to the heavenly party.
Listeners with synaesthetic tendencies will have been saturated in endless shades of blue in the concluding slow movement. The nine double basses, impressively nimble when they needed to be, eloquently built up the music’s long perspectives, the three Pan-music crises somehow became more distant and irrelevant as they became more desperate, and Elizabeth Rowe’s immaculate flute solo heralded a peerless release from earthly cares. Nelsons’s conducting style seems to have become a bit less demonstrative, but he is still incredibly energising and expansive, with every gesture galvanising his players into further refinements of response and triumphs of ensemble. With two Berlin Philharmonic Proms in the same weekend, the Boston players could have been superstar overload, but with playing and conducting of this quality and integrity, who cares?
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms