Celestial attainment of Mahler’s longest symphony

This was a musicians’ concert. Instrumentalists and teachers along with regular patrons thronged the Royal Opera House Muscat for a performance of gigantic proportions on Thursday evening. Gustav Mahler’s 1896 Third Symphony in D minor is the longest in the repertoire and uses massive forces – though not quite the number in his 8th ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. Because of this, it is challenging to produce, and so its presentation at the weekend was a rare privilege for aficionados of Mahler’s unique musical style.
Mahler was more than a composer; he created a country where the listener can learn the language and recognise places, characters and familiar emotions. There are themes which refer to childhood stories or deep, dark places which need to be exorcised. Listening to Mahler becomes a journey, and though the work is unknown, the language is familiar.
The whole symphony in six movements, whose original programme was later withdrawn, lasted for an hour and forty minutes, with barely a pause between movements. At the end of the second movement soloist and choirs took their positions on stage so that the burlesque of the third movement could segue seamlessly into the intense mood of the fourth and fifth. The sixth and final movement brought the whole structure full circle, leaving the listener with a sense of stillness, eternal peace and tranquillity.
For this grand Muscat performance, a hundred members of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra filled the stage to capacity. To give an idea of the scale, there were eight each of horns and double basses, five each of clarinets and bassoons and two harps. The weighty task of getting an ensemble of that breadth to ‘play as one’ fell upon the more than capable shoulders of the animated French-born conductor of distinguished international experience, fifty-four-year-old, Emmanuel Villaume.
The first movement alone was an immense 35 minutes, (Strong and decisive; Pan’s awakening: Summer Marches In) contrasting a tragic funeral march with a huge brass soundscape of optimism and triumph. It featured the superb ensemble of the French Horn section combined with muted trumpets and tuba, contrasting with the lighter sounds depicting nature from the woodwind. Pervading the whole work were the delicate folk-like solo violin interjections from Concert Master, the flamboyant Jarolím Emmanuel Ružička. The sheer joy and exuberance of youth was painted in folksong by the brass and glockenspiel with a tender trombone solo from Michal Jaško.
Crisp snare drum rolls were heard off stage as the music built up and resounded throughout the auditorium then fell away to almost nothing just as quickly. Quotes of the ‘Wunderhorn’ themes in the woodwind with shrieking piccolos, spoke in Mahler’s unique language. The music ended in a rousing climax with child-like tambourine sounds punctuated by timps, gong and cymbals, keeping the seven percussionists physically engaged.
The second ‘Minuet’ movement, (What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me) opened with a haunting oboe solo, delicate fiddles and harps suggesting a woodland scene. Developing into lush romantic timbres, Mahler himself wrote, “it is the most reckless page I ever composed, reckless as only flowers can be”, it was more of an ironic Scherzo than courtly Minuet; amusing with its reversed glissandos and pizzicato cellos. Thirty international singers of the Bratislava Boys’ Choir and thirty-six women of the Slovak Philharmonic Choir took their places behind, as the multi-lingual mezzosoprano, Bernarda Fink sat at the front – the only dash of red amidst the black.
The third movement, (Comfortable, Scherzo, without haste; What Animals of the Forest Tell Me) was a delightful dream-fantasy, featuring a brilliant ‘posthorn’ melody on flugelhorn from the second tier, performed ‘molto legato’ by Ondřej Jurčeka over very high violin sonorities. It ended in a colossal ‘cosmic crescendo’, making way for the fourth movement.
The rich, alto voice of Bernarda Fink entered sparingly and measured, with words of “Midnight Song” from Nietzsche’s, ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ (Very slowly, mysteriously, absolutely pianissimo: What Mankind Tells Me). It formed a hushed metaphysical meditation on ‘Mensch’, both mysterious and yearning. Over sustained bass strings and harps alternating major/minor modes and quiet horn chords, the effect of her controlled elegance was absolute stillness. An iconic Cor Anglais melody from Matùš Veľas brought echoes of the Wunderhorn themes in a mystical lament. Bernarda sang expressively without affectation, a contained passion mirrored only by Ružička’s solo fiddle.
The fifth movement (Cheerful in Tempo, Cheeky in Expression: What the Angels Tell Me) burst into life with boys’ voices ringing, ‘Ding dong’ in bright joyful innocence in contrast to the darkness of Nietzsche. Tubular bells gave a magical, fairy-tale quality as Fink anticipated the ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ of the Fourth Symphony.
The final movement, (Slowly, tranquil, deeply felt: What Love Tells Me) returned to purely instrumental forces in a long development. Hymn-like Chorales of strings in warm, lush sonorities and Mahlerian cello phrases suggested ascending into the light. A Horn chorus began a steady building of textures until dissonances resolved and faded to nothing; just still strings. Finally, with strings in their extreme registers, a choir of brass led by trumpets and gentle trombones lifted the music into D major. It moved to the inevitable, final cadence of eternity as the timpani heartbeats brought the symphony and evening to a resolute, uplifting conclusion.