Many composers have taken their inspiration from nature, but it took the vision of Mahler to turn that inspiration into a massive six-movement pantheistic hymn. Clocking in at close to 100 minutes, this is no jolly pastoral picture in the mode of Beethoven or Dvorak, but rather a vast expression of what George Bernard Shaw (who, ironically, considered Mahler "expensively second-rate") described as the “Life Force”, moving from primal chaos to perfection. Granted, Shaw’s perfection was human while Mahler’s is divine, but the journeys are similar.
The 3rd presents its share of interpretive challenges. To pick just one example, the episodic first movement (originally titled “Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In”) could without a strong hand at the tiller easily degenerate into a series of musical tableaux. As conductor Bruno Walter (a strong Mahler advocate) once noted, “[i]n regard to this one movement—and to this one alone—I must admit that the effort to take it in musically is frequently thwarted by the intrusion of non-musical matter, of fantastic images, that break the musical texture.” Mr. Robertson held it all together, though, and brought it to a rousing conclusion, assisted by some first-rate solo work from (among others) Timothy Myers on trombone and Cally Banham on English horn.
The audience clearly loved it. A ripple of spontaneous applause broke out, prompting a smiling Mr. Robertson to turn to the house and say “it’s OK”, after which the ripple became a wave.
And so it continued for the remainder of the evening. The “Tempo di Menuetto” second movement (original title: “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”) was appropriately bucolic. The more boisterous third movement “Scherzando” (“What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”) with its nostalgic offstage posthorn interludes (played in this case by a trumpet) was a nice study in contrasts.
The following two vocal movements bring humanity into the picture. The first is a nocturnal setting for contralto of lines from Nietzsche’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” about how Joy goes deeper and lasts longer than Woe (performed with great feeling by mezzo Susan Graham). The second is a sunny contrasting setting of a poem from “Das Knaben Wunderhorn” (“Youth’s Magic Horn”, a collection of folk poetry that dominated Mahler’s work for much of the 1890s) about how St. Peter (sung by the soloist from the previous movement) is readily forgiven by a loving Christ.
The angels are portrayed by the women’s and children’s choruses, with the latter mostly singing “bimm, bamm” in imitation of the tuned bells also called for in the score. In keeping with Mahler’s requirements, the bells and kids were placed house right behind the dress circle boxes, providing a nice antiphonal effect for those seated in the orchestra and dress circle. That poses a bit of a challenge for both the performers and conductor, but Mr. Robertson and company came through beautifully.
The final movement is perhaps the toughest nut to crack for both the conductor and the audience. Unfolding with deliberate slowness (it’s marked “Slow. Peacefully. With feeling.”) over a half-hour, this remarkable movement was seen by the composer as “the peak, the highest level from which one can view the world.” It’s serene, all embracing, and, although it requires a lot from an audience that has already gone through a substantial musical sojourn, it ultimately leads to a powerful and ecstatic conclusion that makes it all worthwhile.
For me, Friday night’s performance just missed that last bit of ecstasy. I don’t know how much of that was Mr. Robertson’s somewhat leisurely approach to the work as a whole and how much might have been what sounded rather like fatigue from some of the players, particularly in the brass section (from which much is demanded). I couldn’t help wonder whether it might have been best to put an intermission after the first movement (as is sometimes done) to give both players and audience members a chance to rest and reflect.
That said, this Mahler 3rd is a darned impressive achievement that bodes well for the rest of the season. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and you shouldn’t either. There’s one more performance on Saturday, October 6, at 8 PM at Powell Hall; for more information, visit stlsymphony.org.
The season continues next week (October 12–14) with a program of Beethoven, Ravel, and Debussy with guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and pianist Pascal Rogé.