Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko – Mahler 3

Symphony No.3

Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)

Ladies of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir
Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Reviewed by: Glyn Môn Hughes

Reviewed: 22 May, 2010
Venue: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Vasily Petrenko. Photograph: Mark McNultyThe folks at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic have got it right. The decision to run the cycle of Mahler symphonies (along with other works by this composer) over three seasons is surely a far better idea than running performances like bus operators run their fleet: wait for ages while nothing happens and then they all come together. It’s what concert-giving organisations elsewhere have done but balancing the might of the Eighth with the introspection of the First, the grandeur of the second and the pathos of the Fifth is a recipe for musical indigestion. At least there is some way to ponder the meaning of these works.

And then along comes Mahler’s Third, surely one of the oddest ‘symphonies’ in the repertoire. Critics and composers alike were scathing and, to put it in context, it was premiered only 17 years after Brahms’s Fourth and, comparatively, very conventional symphony. Six years later, Elgar’s very worthy First Symphony saw the light of day. Schoenberg’s arch-romantic work Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) was barely three years old. Mahler himself seemed bemused by this gargantuan creation saying it was “something the like of which the world has never heard”. Indeed, the whole piece is rather like a film score without the film. It’s an evocation to creation if, indeed, any sort of programme can be attached to the work.

From Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the opening movement emerged as surely one of the most schizophrenic of any symphonic movement, veering from funereal solemnity to bravado worthy of Hollywood soundtracks. Petrenko kept the introduction massively understated – no bad thing, considering the explosive nature of what was to come. It was a highly charged performance, yet Petrenko kept an iron-grip on the hugely augmented RLPO. He drew the movement to a massive conclusion which elicited a collective “phew!” from the audience.

Karen Cargill. Photograph:  Sloane PhotographyAfter that the delicate, chamber-like minuet was a welcome antidote to the passion of the first movement while the third was a rather jolly episode, marred somewhat by some messy horn-playing – a shame, since this section contributed so much to the overall work. In some ways the slow, barely-moving fourth movement was the highlight. The meltingly rich tones of Karen Cargill were perfectly suited to this sotto voce highly moving setting of Neitzsche. The ladies of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the fresh, disciplined voices of the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir let a ray of sunshine in to the fifth movement before the piece went back into one of its solemn passages. The quiet strings in the sublime chorale which forms the backbone of the finale provided a superb prelude to the triumphant way in which Petrenko brought this huge work to a shattering conclusion.

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