ENDNOTES, 3rd August 2016

Gustav Mahler, 1902 portrait by Emil Orlik

Gustav Mahler, 1902 portrait by Emil Orlik

ENDNOTES, 3rd August 2016

Endnotes, 3rd August 2016. In this edition, Bernard Haitink conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in the Proms performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony, with Soprano Sarah Connolly, the LSO Chorus & Tiffin Boys’ Choir

The symphonies of Gustav Mahler – and of Bruckner and Beethoven – have had an undisputed champion for the past 60 or so years: Bernard Haitink, conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Now in his 87th year, Haitink is a regular artist at the Proms – indeed, I first saw the maestro at the 1982 Proms, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme of Debussy’s Jeux, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Elgar’s First Symphony. On Friday 29th July, Haitink returned to the Royal Albert Hall for a work that is close to his heart: the six-movement, two-part, choral-orchestral Symphony No. 3 in D minor, which Mahler wrote in the early 1890s. Very much like Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand” (No. 8 in the cycle) and the immense, large-scale – but purely orchestral – Seventh Symphony (to be performed later in the season), No. 3 scales great emotional and philosophical heights and encompasses many thrilling and also enigmatic ideas, over nearly two hours. Nietzsche’s thought profoundly influenced the composer and in the fourth movement, he evokes a sense of mankind as a puny figure beneath the heavens:

“O Man! Take heed!/ What says deep midnight?… The world is deep. More deeply conceived than the day./Deep is its pain!/… Yet all joy desires eternity – desires deep, deep eternity!”

Nietzsche, 1869

Nietzsche, 1869

The words are taken from Also Sprach Zarathustra. Already in the symphony such ideas are set out early on: the startling, emphatic opening fanfare played by the large orchestral horn section (the LSO fielded nine horn-players in all) in which we gain a vision of the arrival of the great god, Pan – as “summer marches in” – the very terms used by the composer to outline the first movement’s essence. Mahler also wrote:

“It always strikes me as strange that most people, when they speak of ‘nature’, think only of flowers, little birds and woodsy smells. No-one knows the god Dionysus, the great Pan.”

And yet despite this statement, the first movement – at over half-an-hour in length – manages not just to evoke alpine forests, mountains and a great procession of nature, but also to find the tiny echoes of bird-song – with the most delicate orchestral writing, as thin as a spider’s web laced with dew in an early-morning woodland, seeking out all the smallest details of the natural world in which Mahler rejoiced. However, he does not stand still for long, and in the distance came the rough, broken sounds of the village or of military brass instruments, building to frightening levels of sound – and for this Proms performance, I doubt if the different character of the brass writing (the nobility of Pan and his forest entourage – the peasant or army brass pounding out from afar) could have been better played than by the LSO’s trumpeters and trombonists on this special occasion for Haitink.

The second and third movements of the symphony are more leisurely. But at the end of the third movement, subtitled “What the animals of the forest tell me”, Mahler unleashes one of the great, surprising whirlwinds in all music: a moment that gathers up energy as from nowhere: warning sounds suddenly erupting from the woodwind, and setting fire to a rush of unbridled energy. For a moment, we are on the brink of an astonishing vision – harps swirling, and the massive orchestral fault-line shifting uneasily, before setting off on a short, triumphant march that then breaks into a wild gallop and tumult. Bernard Haitink – the 87-year-old Mahlerian – brought the London Symphony Orchestra to the very peak of its playing in this section; seldom have I heard such a breath-taking conclusion to this movement. (A worthy comparison on record would be Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic version on Deutsche Grammophon from 1986/7.)

Throughout this Proms performance, I sensed the conductor allowing the music to flow: not one section of the symphony seemed forced, or pushed on unnaturally to achieve greater drama. The quality of the performance came from the certainty that Haitink inspired, his understanding of Mahler, and the LSO’s instinctive grasp of the immense textures and colours that the composer had invented for them. For the final movement, another noble theme arises (this, in turn, following a heavenly choir of young, female voices offering us a song of angels, blissfully resounding through heaven – “Heavenly joy is a blessed city”); and once again, the orchestra and conductor found every moment of grace, anxiety, tragedy and final hope. Some critics mention the prolonged themes in Mahler, the restatement of ideas – perhaps repetition. Perhaps the last movement of the Third suffers from this problem. But in such a reading as this, surely all thoughts of Mahler’s excesses should be banished.

After the applause died down, and the audience filed out of the hall, a large queue formed outside for the much-discussed David Bowie late-night Prom – part of the BBC’s attempt to reach out to new audiences. How sad that those young people waiting for the Bowie retrospective did not consider coming to the Mahler: they missed a truly cosmic experience.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review.


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