Lilli Paasikivi (contralto)
Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus
The Boys of Kings College Choir, Cambridge
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Tristan Jakob-Hoff
Reviewed: 25 June, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The problems inherent in performing a six-movement, circa 100-minute-long epic such as Mahler’s Third – whose first movement alone exceeds the average length of most traditional symphonies – are easily imagined. Mahler’s most famous statement on music was that “a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything”. Never was this philosophy more fully realised than in his longest symphony, and, like the world, it can at times seem a disparate and messy place. Despite the frequency with which the piece is now performed, it is still a very rare occasion on which it completely convinces from beginning to end; more often than not, it falters somewhere in the middle and never quite pulls together again in time for the sublime Adagio with which it ends.
Paavo Järvi’s performance with the London Symphony Orchestra was a case in point. It started very well indeed, with the LSO’s eight horns keeping their cool throughout the exposed, unison theme, sinking rather grandly into an atmospheric murk of trombones and tam-tams. Gruff lower strings gave way to squalling woodwinds and a cracking snare drum, each element sounding marvellously fresh and vibrant, with Järvi clearly relishing the intricate detail of Mahler’s colourful score. The LSO responded with some first-rate playing, especially trombonist Katy Pryce, whose soulful solos veered between hard-edged obstinacy and a touching vulnerability.
What was missing, though, was an overarching sense of direction from the podium. All too often, the music’s momentum ground to a halt as Järvi got side-tracked by a subsidiary figure or a throwaway melody. At one point near the end of the first movement, he was distracted by a lovely cello melody, a winding, melancholy tune that he drew out to such an extent that it sounded like something from the composer’s Ninth Symphony. The effect was rather beautiful in the moment, but it spoiled the movement’s flow and it never quite managed to get back on track. A similar treatment of the sublime ‘posthorn’ theme in the third movement left one feeling impatient.
A few rough edges had crept into the LSO’s playing by the fourth movement, but Lilli Paasikivi’s singing was soothing balm. The quality of her voice is just right for this music: a haunting contralto alto possessed of both expressive weight and a curious lightness of tone, giving it ethereal quality that floated magically above the deep abyss of Mahler’s accompaniment. Her contribution in the tiny fifth movement was equally welcome, going some way to redeeming the ragged choral singing.
The real redemption came in the final Adagio. As radiantly beautiful a movement as Mahler ever wrote, it was correctly identified by Järvi as the heart of the symphony, and he had clearly put a lot of effort into getting it just right. For the most part he handled it perfectly: the tempo was neither too fast, as is common in so many modern performances, nor too slow, like Leonard Bernstein’s lugubrious CBS recording now on Sony; it had just the right mix of meditative calm and passionate intensity, building up to its searing central crisis with an unforced sense of inevitability. The LSO strings sounded as good or better than I have heard them in a long while, essentially carrying the (here) 25-minute movement on their own, with little more than a few colouristic highlights from the rest of the orchestra.
Only the last few bars of the movement – an unlikely-sounding ritardando leading to an overblown climax – failed to completely convince. For all the applause – and much of it was justified – this was not an occasion to establish Paavo Järvi as a great Mahler conductor. It takes something more than a good ear for detail and a well-rehearsed orchestra to make this symphony work, and Järvi – for all his myriad strengths – hasn’t quite reached that point. It will be worth following his progress.