Mahler’s epically-scaled, even more epically themed Third Symphony can be a tough nut to crack. The longest symphony to have made it into the commonly recognised canon, it comes in at around an hour-and-three-quarters and its first movement alone often nudges 40 minutes. That opener, with its theme of ‘Pan awakes. Summer comes marching in’, is intended to balance the other five movements, a series of meditations on nature, mankind and the divine. When the third movement (‘What the creatures of the forest tell me’) and the finale (‘What love tells me’) weigh in at 18 and 25 minutes respectively, achieving that balance, let alone maintaining a through line, is just one of the myriad challenges for a conductor – that and guiding Mahler’s massive orchestra where pretty much everything is doubled, including the timpani!
David Robertson’s approach with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was exemplary. Understanding that Mahler has placed an ample sufficiency of extremes on the page, Robertson set off at a weighty, measured pace, while never resorting to the kind of added exaggerations that can bloat a reading of what is already a full-cream work. Like his friend and colleague the late Pierre Boulez, Robertson also paid homage to Mahler the master-orchestrator, ensuring that every variation and combination of instruments was given its moment in the sun – for after all, despite its grandeur and occasional resort to sheer decibels, this is a supremely sunny work.
Of course, one should never encourage the brass, but what a superb show they put on here. The eight horns, led by Ben Jacks and Geoffrey O’Reilly offered both heft and warmly rounded tone. Even more special were the laser-like solo trumpet contributions of David Elton and Paul Goodchild, while Ronald Prussing’s beautifully shaded trombone solos were most powerfully done. The SSO strings were on top form as well, Andrew Haveron’s solos sweetly singing. By astutely dividing the violins left and right, and unusually placing double basses and cellos stage right in opposition to the low brass stage left, Robertson realised some of Mahler’s dramatic antiphonal effects. Woodwind – four to a part (except for the five clarinets) and all flutes doubling screaming piccolos – were led by Diana Doherty, eloquent in the numerous oboe solos, and Samuel Coles (on loan from the Philharmonia), most impressive on flute.
Robertson’s precise approach paid dividends in the crisply articulated marches without stinting the all-hell-breaks-loose moment when percussion fires on all cylinders towards the end of the first movement. Mahler’s genius over the long haul is the way he combines and divides his themes with such variety that things never feel overlong or repetitious, but it was perhaps in the quieter sections that Robertson and the orchestra were most thrilling, capturing the sense of wafting breezes in the upper strings and a magical foretaste of heaven in the gentle chords that follow the main statement on the horns. In fact, Robertson teased out those heavenly glimpses more than once, pulling one out of the gathering clouds before the end of the third movement and especially at the end of the mezzo solo in the fourth movement, ‘What the night tells me’.
It was clear that Robertson would have liked to bind the entire second part – movements two to six – together by segueing through the joins, and although the unnecessary hiatus of getting the children’s choir into their seats scuppered part of this plan, he achieved a deal of cohesion here. The second movement ‘What the meadow flowers tell me’ offered gossamer strings flecked with harp and delicate solos from oboe, flute and clarinet – in short, a perfect summer’s day. The Wunderhorn-infused forest of the third movement was full of characterful creatures, from fearsome monsters in the brass to cheekier fauna in the woodwind. The taxing posthorn solo (Goodchild again) was hauntingly delivered with some terrific high notes, only flagging in its final iteration.
As if his orchestral demands are not enough, in his desire to portray life, the universe and everything Mahler also calls for women’s choir, children’s choir and mezzo soprano soloist. Robertson was blessed with the great American singer Susan Graham and her reading of Nietzsche’s O Mensch, gib Acht! – one of the more palatable moments from Also Sprach Zarathustra – was perfection itself. Graham’s warm mezzo washed over a pulsing bed of cellos, basses and tolling harp like a rich, warm burgundy, her diction exemplary, her involvement with the text complete. Her embracing of the final Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit, Will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit (But all longing craves eternity, craves deep, deep eternity), was profoundly hair-raising.
The faux-naïf fifth movement with its angel choirs was a refreshing palate cleanser, the Sydney Children’s Choir whopping out their “bim, bams” as if their lives depended on it. Disciplined and with a healthy, enthusiastic tone, they were a model of vocal excellence. The women of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs matched them in enthusiasm, getting hold of the melodramatic text – Des Knaben Wunderhorn again – for all it was worth and singing with clean, clear tone.
Attending to the dramatic through line once again, Robertson managed a dreamlike shift into the hushed opening of the finale. If Mahler had written nothing more than this radiant Adagio – a movement where those old antagonists Brahms and Wagner seem to walk hand in hand – he would have earned his place in heaven. The SSO strings caught the mood of infinite tenderness to a tee, moving forward calmly and luminously, with Robertson taking enormous care to build Mahler’s musical cathedral step by step. As the whole moved towards its grand conclusion, my parting thought was how lucky Susan Graham was to be sitting tucked away in the midst of the strings – I’d have paid top dollar to be sitting next to her. With three more performances, this is one not to be missed.
Mahler 3 is repeated on Friday, Saturday and Monday, July 21 – 24.