Symphony No.3 in D-minor
Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano)
Croydon Philharmonic Choir (sopranos and altos)
Kensington Symphony Chorus (ladies’ voices)
Riddlesdown Collegiate Boys’ Vocal Group
Royal Russell School Consort Choir (upper voices)
Wilson’s School Junior Choir
Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 20 May, 2023
Venue: Fairfield Halls, East Croydon
Earlier this year Russell Keable conducted the KSO, cast and chorus in a searing performance of Peter Grimes, and now an equally convincing account of Mahler’s great chain-of-being Symphony No.3. You wonder what’s next for this ambitious 67-year-old non-professional orchestra. The high quality of its playing delivered Mahler’s mega-vision of nature and creation, catching the spirit of late-romantic egoism undermined by more modern anxieties, a tension that kept Mahler going throughout his relatively short life.
From the eight horns barging their way into the ‘Summer marches in’ first movement, this set out on a performance you willed to succeed. Mahler may have dispensed with his original titles for the movements, but they still explain his plan. The brass in particular presented Nature as an unstoppable life-force erupting out of the Symphony’s default mode of chaotic, often brutal intransigence. There were memorable solos from trumpet, trombone and violin, all secure in the turn-of-the-century Viennese idiom, and occasional nervy rough areas only reflected the music’s edge-of-the-seat impulsiveness, something that the strings (based on five double basses) didn’t quite meet halfway. Perhaps this was Keable’s plan – a rather neutral sound to counter brass and woodwind bluster and personality – but any yearning for a fuller, more tactile sound had to wait for complete satisfaction until the final movement.
The woodwind tempered the second movement’s sweet tooth with a hint of asperity, and while Richard Knights’s posthorn solo in the next one could have been more distant, it was full of bird-watching naivety and innocence, with the sudden explosion of fury near the end an impressive take-cover moment. After this not even the dribble of applause could spoil the mystery at the start of the Nietzsche setting that follows, with Helen Charlston marking the beginning of the progress to the Symphony’s end in singing of considerable beauty, poise and warmth, made all the more remote by the oboe’s portamento wails. The chorus then gently filled the emptiness with enchanting lightness and a subtly expressed differentiation between the boys’ and women’s voices in ‘Es sungen drei Engel’, clearing the way for the radiance of the Adagio. As memories of doubt and anguish diminished in intensity, Keable and the KSO were clear about what Mahler and love were telling them, capped by a sensationally cathartic tattoo from the two timpanists.