London Philharmonic – Sir Mark Elder conducts Mahler’s Third Symphony

Symphony No. 3 in D minor

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
London Philharmonic Choir
Trinity Boys Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Alexander Hall

Reviewed: 25 November, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Nearly all Mahler symphonies are about journeys, mostly the progression from darkness to light. His Third is unique in the sense that it encompasses all life and the natural world too. At the end of a really good performance of this work the listener should feel foot-weary and emotionally drained. Getting there involves a lot of stamina for well over one hundred players, two sets of choristers and a mezzo-soprano soloist, together with a conductor who knows how to pace the six movements which take up most of two hours and draw out the infinitely varied detail. Sir Mark Elder, a late replacement for the previously advertised Robin Ticciati, may not visibly emote and he lacks the theatrical flamboyance of others, but he is a safe pair of hands when it comes to negotiating the twists and turns of a score peppered with all kinds of instructions about what to do and especially what not to do. Not every command was adhered to: for instance, the bells of the horns were not lifted up in the opening movement, and Elder’s pause between the first two movements of just two minutes was less than the composer’s stipulated five. Over and above such quibbles, Elder had the good fortune to have at his disposal the London Philharmonic Orchestra on commanding form, a few minor imperfections aside, both in terms of individual playing and ensemble work.

Mahler’s design for his Third Symphony is that of a musical cosmology, something never attempted before save in the operatic world of Richard Wagner, and indeed never equalled since. His working titles for the six movements (later removed from the score like scaffolding after completion of the building project) are as follows:

  • Pan awakes, summer marches in
  • What the wild flowers tell me
  • What the animals in the wood tell me
  • What man tells me
  • What the angels tell me
  • What love tells me

The titles alone are an indication of the scope and scale of the work. In 1904, after hearing a performance, Schoenberg wrote to the composer in admiring fashion: “I have seen your soul naked, stark naked. It lay before me, like a wild, mysterious landscape, with blood-curdling depths and ravines, and next, bright, comely, sunny meadows and idyllic places of rest.” Mahler himself knew he was demanding a lot from his audiences, stating that “People will need time to crack the nuts which I have shaken from the tree”. Any interpreter who rushes through even the more wildly extravagant episodes does so at their own peril.

Elder took his time over the first movement (thirty-six minutes, to be precise), adopting a slow-burn approach which allowed the individual strands, including the separation of first and second violins, as well as characteristics in the instrumentation, such as harps and tambourine, to have their full effect. Here too, the LPO’s leader, Alice Ivy-Pemberton, made the first of her many solo contributions, sweet-toned, sensitive, and always stylish. The biggest interpretative problem of all lies in achieving overall structural coherence without sacrificing too much detail, for Mahler weaves together elements of a funeral march (a recurring feature in his symphonies) with a grandly exuberant procession, the latter prompting Richard Strauss to make a typically mischievous description of this long opening movement: “A May Day procession of socialist workers along the Prater.” In Elder’s hands the detail was often dazzling, and the ear was left to savour moments where chasms below open up, such as the important trombone solo imbued with a sense of desolation. Careful attention to dynamics was apparent, not least towards the end of the movement where the lens of the interpreter switched to viewing the landmarks from afar, a distancing effect which Mahler uses repeatedly. But for all that I missed a little more abandon, a truly joyous outpouring which revels in the hedonistic spirit of being alive, of throwing all caution to the winds.

Elder’s softer, more cautious manner repaid dividends in the following three movements. The second, in the style of a minuet, was not short of charm, elfin-footed and drawing half-pirouettes in the glistening early-morning sunshine, accompanied by gentle zephyrs refreshing the soul, the woodwind calling to mind softly whirring clocks and then chiming the hour in perfect synchrony with the keyboard percussion. The third adopts the character of a scherzo and has markedly rustic elements, well conveyed on this occasion by the E-flat clarinets and the raucousness of full orchestral chatter. Its unique quality, however, derives from the repeated solos for an off-stage posthorn, played with great poise and nobility by Paul Beniston, properly observing the portamento as directed by the composer. One of the hardest things to achieve here is the appropriate distance from the listener: too far and the ear loses some of the detail; too close and the magical sense of becoming slowly airborne and floating in the wind is lost. Here it was just right, the softly shimmering strings providing an ideal cushion of support.

In the fourth movement Mahler moves into much darker territory. He requires a very slow tempo, dynamics mostly confined to ppp and a Misterioso quality. Little should disturb the essential raptness. There has been much debate about what Mahler intended for the important oboe solo, marked “Hinaufziehen. Wie ein Naturlaut” (drawing up and mimicking the sound of nature). Certainly, the aspiration and vocalisation of a wood bird is a defining feature. Some players merely hint at an upward lift in the two notes that are played (still marked pp). Here, however, there was a very marked glissando effect at much too high a dynamic level: it was like having a peacock on your front lawn.

Alice Coote can already look back on a distinguished career of singing Mahler. She possesses not only excellent German diction, but the timbres of her voice effortlessly encompass the bittersweet qualities that underlie so much of this composer’s writing. From a perfectly judged opening solo line, beautifully matching the soft introduction on strings and harp, with its admonitory message to mankind to take heed, and the repeated “O Mensch” carrying all the heartache of man’s inhumanity of man, Coote’s voice opened out gloriously for the moment of awakening from deep slumber, “Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht”.

I was delighted to see a set of five tuned handbells deployed at the start of the fifth movement, in which Mahler recreates a mood of celestial enchantment, heightened by the use of glockenspiel. However, placing the forty or so boy choristers on the conductor’s right rather than centrally resulted in a loss of projection, and though the voices were suitably angelic they also lacked the degree of lustiness inherent in the words of the text taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. 

It can be argued that Mahler’s great concluding slow movement is equalled only by what he wrote at the end of his Ninth Symphony. It is in any case the first real Adagio which he wrote, though that term is not used in the score. The LPO has a long tradition of working under great interpreters in this field, and my own memory stretches back to the remarkable performances which Haitink gave with these forces in the early 1970s. His quality of utter seamlessness was not quite replicated by Elder in this performance, but again his slow-burn approach allowed a gradual drawing together of all the elements of polyphony, the strings later leaving invisible traces of scorching in the air, the trumpets both chilling and piercing, the horns thundering, as well as an exquisitely floated flute solo from Juliette Bausor. Mahler’s Third Symphony is a long and progressive journey, moving from inanimate nature to God in heaven. In his memorable and often cited conversation with Sibelius in 1907 about the nature of a symphony, Mahler averred that “this means creating a world with all the technical means available”. Why have his symphonies not lost their compelling power to attract capacity audiences whenever they are performed? Quite simply because this composer gives them literally everything he can.

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