Prom 52: Musical Mahler Emotionally Underwhelming

Symphony No.3 in D minor

Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)
London Symphony Chorus (women’s voices)
Trinity Boys Choir
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Eliahu Inbal

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 28 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

What is it with Mahler 3? It seems to have a cruel effect on conductors. Some 19 years ago, Michael Tilson Thomas’s indisposition with the Philharmonia led to a young man being whisked to London, from Finland, to take over the performance and learning the score so-to-do in just a week. That man was Esa-Pekka Salonen, and I’m sure, originally, both the Concertgebouw and the Proms office wished circumstances were otherwise in Riccardo Chailly’s absence (a serious shoulder injury the cause) that Salonen was not on tour with his Los Angeles Philharmonic and could again step into pole position (like he had also done in February 2001, when Haitink cancelled an LPO performance of the work).

With Sinaisky taking over the RCO’s first Prom the previous night, it was left to Israeli maestro Eliahu Inbal to take over the Mahler. Billed as a Prom debutante (although our esteemed editor swears blind Inbal did a fine Dvořák 5 in a previous Prom season … Thanks, Nick, for the “esteemed” – hopefully we’ll both go far! – and, yes, Inbal conducted the BBCSO at the Proms on 8 August 1983 – Ed.), Inbal had certainly galvanised his Concertgebouw troops in rehearsal so that their unrivalled Mahler tradition (dating back to performances with the composer himself, let alone 50 years with one of the greatest Mahlerians, Wilhelm Mengelberg) was preserved intact.

Yes, this was a fabulously played and organised performance. At no time did one fear that the orchestral textures might have torn and fractured. The off-stage post-horn solo (unfortunately not individually credited in the programme, but presumably one of the two principal trumpeters Frits Damrow or Peter Masseurs) was superbly handled, and had obviously been carefully rehearsed, with RAH or BBC staff on hand to open appropriate doors; my seat afforded me a glorious view of these expert arrangements, which were not a distraction, but rather an enhancement. Also, Inbal had his choirs (a proper boys’ choir to boot, which Mahler would have approved of, however sexist) sit down for their last “Bimm Bamm” entry, allowing a seamless flow into the long-breathed closing ’Adagio’. This is always tricky – leaving them standing as you move into the last movement, you have to wait until the first tutti climax, over ten minutes in, before the chorus can sit without being intrusive (an early Salonen performance in Edinburgh with the RSNO proved that point).

But Inbal’s performance was full of such wise judgements, and the packed Albert Hall was rewarded by a tremendous performance of Mahler’s notes.But – and despite its excellence there is a serious “but” – I was not moved one millimetre. I could marvel at the Concertgebouw’s miraculous string tone, pungent wind solos and, for the most part, beautifully rounded brass tone (I’ve heard all but Mahler’s Second and Eighth symphonies given by the orchestra in Britain, courtesy Bernstein – 4 & 9; Haitink – 4 & 6; and Chailly – 1, 4, 5, 7 & 10), but the emotional import of the music made no impact at all. Even Michelle DeYoung, singing this music previously at the Proms with Haitink, could not break the pattern of stagnant feeling or, worse, emotional retardedness. Perhaps, unfairly, it is that Haitink performance, with the BBCSO, that is my benchmark for the work: at the end I was barely holding my composure, so moved had I been, that when asked if I had enjoyed it I promptly burst into tears (it is probably the single most profound performance I have ever witnessed). My expectations were perilously high, therefore, and were left emotionally underwhelmed.

For once, it seems that being in the Arena was not the ideal spot.Although from my stalls seat I caught it only once or twice (including a bizarre pitchless duet with Michelle DeYoung in the fourth movement), Inbal’s own vocal interjections were a distracting addition to the whole performance. Intriguingly, Inbal is not the only grunter or singer-along in his profession; but somehow Sir Colin Davis, Giulini, Pollini or – indeed – Sir John Barbirolli can/could get away with it!

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Monday, 2 September, at 2 o’clock

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