Seen and Heard Concert Review
by Alex Russell
Gustav Mahler Symphony No 3: Lilli Paasikivi (contralto) Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus, The Boys of King's College Choir, Cambridge; London Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi (conductor): Barbican Hall; 25.06. 2006 (AR)
I have heard many performances of Mahler’s titanic Third Symphony in concert but it was this account by Paavo Järvi with the London Symphony Orchestra that surpassed all others for its sheer drama and rigorous sense of structure, unifying all six movements into a seamless whole. Järvi’s elegant and economic gestures were solely for the orchestra – and not for the audience as is the case with some conductors. This was a well rehearsed and beautifully prepared performance with the LSO being on top form playing with an authentic ‘Mahler sound’.
The first movement – Pan awakes, Summer Marches In - lasts up to 35 minutes and is often dragged out, sounding sectionalised and fragmented, almost grinding to a halt –Lorin Maazel’s account, also with the LSO (Barbican, 23rd June 2002) – comes to mind. From the outset Järvi had his hand on the pulse of the music perfectly articulating the bass-drum heart-beats that become the back-bone metre of the movement. Very often these bass drum dry thuds are either blurred or lost. For Mahler the bass-drum here symbolises the heart-beat of ‘primeval beginnings’, the awakening of life.
Järvi totally understood this movement to be a thrusting, onward march – unlike Maazel, Litton, and Welser-Möst who - in concert – broke this vast movement up into severed segments. The highlight here was the glowing, mellow solo trombone of Katy Pryce, setting up an alien haunting mood – her control and phrasing were quite outstanding and by far the best I have ever heard in this important solo part. In the more explosive militaristic moments the percussion, brass and woodwind played with a brute force whilst never sounding noisy or drowning out their colleagues, but combining to produce all the bombast and gusto of a military band, just as Mahler intended. Credit must also go to the cellos and double basses who produced a gritty, grainy, gruff sound.
The second movement – What the Flowers of the Meadow Tell Me - is embarrassing folksy kitsch, but Järvi showed tasteful restraint here, conducting with a laid back lilting grace and securing sensitive playing from the woodwind without allowing them to sound like Disneyesque whistle bird-call cartoon noises (as they often do).
The third movement – What the Creatures of the Forest Tell Me – has seemingly eternal passages for the off-stage post-horn solo and could easily be cut – yet again Järvi made the music flow and the solo horn passages were played with a ghostly melancholy accompanied by shimmering strings.
The most mesmerising moment of the entire symphony occurs at the end of this movement, with a sparkling outburst from harps and percussion, as if Mahler, having emerged from a forest, was suddenly confronted by a glistening waterfall, hit by shafts of light.
The fourth movement – What Man Tells Me – is set to text from Friedrich Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra: The Morning Song. O Mensch! Gib Acht! (O Man! Take heed!)- this was exquisitely sung by the outstanding contralto Lilli Paasikivi, her opulent voice moulding phrases with a smouldering intensity – finest vintage claret for the ears.
The boys of King's College Choir and the Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus sang the fifth movement - What the Angels Tell Me - with jubilant joy, the boys’ bimm-bamm for once not sounding absurd.
The last movement – What Love Tells Me – is arguably Mahler’s most optimistic and moving music in this genre, devoid of the saccharine self-pity in the last movement of his ninth Symphony. Here the LSO strings played with a meltingly serene sensitivity, with Järvi sculpting the score with the utmost care, letting the music seemingly flow forth on its own, with the central climax having an acute poignancy, the percussion again playing with an assured incisiveness and dramatic intensity. The closing passages glowed with gleaming brass, the two timpanists delivering the crowning glory to this overwhelming experience.
It would have been better if there was no applause for at least a minute after such moving music, as the magic mood was shattered by a tumultuous ovation – as was the case with Haitink’s Mahler 3 with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Barbican recently.
Paavo Järvi rightly received an ovation for such an emotionally charged and perfectly conducted performance, and trombonist Katy Pryce received rapturous applause as did many other soloists; indeed it was the LSO’s night. It is regrettable that this performance was not recorded for ‘LSO Live’.