Every orchestra worth its salt seems to do a Mahler cycle—especially as we approach the centenary of Mahler’s death. And adding to an already burgeoning amount of Mahler performances, just doing a Mahler cycle is hardly a special event anymore. But when the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam—one of the four foremost Mahler-orchestras—puts on a Mahler cycle, over three years, with eight different conductors, it is something special. Special enough, in any case, to go to Amsterdam and hear their recent performance of the infrequently played Third Symphony under Mariss Jansons which was on the program from February 3rd to the 5th.
The Third Symphony is the strange pinnacle of Mahler’s early triumvirate of “bigger-is-better” symphonies. Written in the summers of 1895/96, it was premiered in 1902 in Krefeld—after Berlin critics had called him a lunatic on the strength of three excerpted movements’ showing a few years before. True to some extent is the fact that genius and musical megalomania come awfully close here. Because of its length (about 90 minutes) and demands on man and material—just a bit less than the Eighth Symphony—it isn’t particularly often performed. With the popularity of the long eschewed Sixth and Ninths symphonies sharp on the rise, it’s quickly being bumped off to the spot of third-least performed Mahler symphony, just ahead of the expensive Eights and the hard-to-sell Seventh.*
The level of anticipation and expectations accordingly high and the musicians still excited about their Friday performance (carried live on the pan-European/French classical music TV channel “MEZZO”), the stage was set for a high-quality letdown. That is unfortunately exactly what it ended up being, as the band that suffers the moniker “World’s Best Orchestra” (try living up to that every week!), delivered something perfectly admirable, a performances that players were happy with, but one that failed to fully please these ears.
The second movement is exempted from all criticism; surprisingly zippy flowers on a zesty meadow, the movement was nicely together and dashed off with refreshing expedience. Trombonist Bart Claessens also has to be singled out for his staggering, splendiferous performance of the first movement solo. The percussion group—centered around Marinus Kornst who bears an uncanny, disquieting resemblance to Andy Dick—should be thrown in among the highlights; ditto the off-stage post horn player and the piccolo’s pearly excellence. The rest was hit and miss; great in the climaxes but incoherent elsewhere.
The woodwinds around dominating clarinets consistently took half a note before deciding to play in unison. The horns and trumpets had more flubs than necessary and were distinctively limpid in the labored Midnight Song (mezzo Bernarda Fink blending in to attractive indistinction). If the underlying pulse is lacking in these movements’ many longueurs, it nixes any feeling of true flow or an arch reaching across the episodic music from beginning to end. The exciting thing about this is that it purveys the befuddlement listeners must have experienced when the work was first performed.
But this string of quibbles can’t take away from the sixth movement’s beginning, perhaps the most beautiful moment in all of Mahler… at least when played like Jansons had his orchestra play here. This is not a movement to launch, but to gingerly get onto its way as if placing a floating candle in water, gently sending it off to drift on. All the varnished glory of the Concertgebouw—orchestra and hall—came out in its trademark mellow sound, surpassed only by the climax that drove home the point that this night the orchestra did best with, well, climaxes and anything loud.
* Based on a cursory analysis of all the Mahler performances in the history of the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra.