Philharmonia/Zander Mahler 3 (19 January)

Symphony No.3

Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir
Tiffin Boys Choir

Philharmonia Orchestra
Benjamin Zander

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 19 January, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Perhaps this should be reviewed as “The Zander Experience”. This was more than a concert. The total ’event’ comprised a one-hour talk about Mahler’s Third Symphony (attended by about half the subsequent audience) given by the extremely talented and articulate Mr Zander. Following was the same Mr Zander putting his ideas into effect and conducting the piece. In teaching, there is a maxim which runs as follows: tell them what you are going to teach them, then teach them, then tell them what you have taught them. This maxim sprang to mind since Mr Zander was also available post-concert (to sign CDs) in order to further reinforce the message. In fact, the pre-concert talk was also effectively a try-out, for the bonus CD explaining the piece which will become the USP (Unique Selling Point) of Mr Zander’s forthcoming recording of the symphony as part of his on-going Philharmonia Mahler cycle for Telarc.

Any psychoanalyst attending the talk would have gained interesting insights and clues into the subsequent performance. Although undoubtedly one of the planet’s most fluent public speakers, Mr Zander is not the most modest of men and would, indeed, make a great leader and propagandist for one of those quasi-religious New Age cults. Indeed his lecture was a performance in itself, vividly communicating his enthusiasm for the piece but leaving little room for what anybody else might think or for any form of audience participation. It was clear that he – and he alone – believes that he holds the initiation to every bar of this music.

That said, the performance had very many virtues. In the first place it was thoroughly rehearsed and admirably played; Zander is an effective conductor. One heard more of the notes than ever before, although in this respect, at least for part of the time, it was more like attending one of Prof G von Hagen’s recent public dissections. I say for part of the time: the posthorn solos (played on a flugelhorn by Alistair Mackie) of the third movement were magically sounded; the hushed and haunted depths of night from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra were as well realised and sung by Catherine Wyn-Rogers as one has any right to expect; above all, the closing ’Adagio’ was played with an outstanding combination of dignity and conviction, the Philharmonia strings giving their considerable all. However, the rapture felt was qualified. Curiously, Zander’s talk provided some of the answers as to why.

There is an element of the control-freak in his make-up that leads him to micro-manage everything everyone is doing every moment of the time. Of course, one could say that this is what conducting is all about. However, the first part of Mahler 3 deals with the uncontrollable and primordial forces of nature, germinating and fertile as in a Samuel Palmer painting. It was precisely these out-of-control aspects that Zander was least successful at realising. Instead of the march which lies at the heart of the first movement tip-toeing in and gradually developing a terrifying unstoppable force until it ultimately runs riot, this was a well-drilled affair more like a May Day parade. There was a reluctance to let the music off the leash (although the trombone solo was exceptionally well played by Byron Fulcher) and consequently the movement’s huge climaxes were just that, simply climaxes, not terrifying tsunamis of sound.

Similarly in the meadow-flowers second movement – delicate, innocent, charming music – Zander’s fussy management of every phrase resulted in these flowers appearing to be all-knowing blooms in a well-mannered garden rather than the fresher varieties to be found in an Alpine pasture. Most curiously of all, the fifth choral movement, which is technically not that difficult to bring off, was desperately short on joy.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is a technical one. As a result of his dotting every ’I’ and crossing every ’T’, Zander tends to sub-divide his beat to the point where a lack of natural rhythmic spring in the orchestral response is felt. The other side of the coin is what the greatest leaders know intuitively, namely that communication is a two-way process where those who are ’led’ – the orchestra – feel free to input and be creative. For the most part, this spontaneous sense of give and take in creating something was a dimension conspicuously lacking. Despite its considerable virtues, this was Managed (and sometimes Manicured) Mahler. To parody Mahler’s own movement headings: What my intuition tells me is that this performance was about half the story.

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