Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1895-1896)

Anna Larsson, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev (LSO Live LSO0660)

1 November 2008 4 stars

Mahler 3 GergievValery Gergiev's much-lauded, much-criticised, much-debated Mahler interpretations with the London Symphony Orchestra deliver plenty of shocks and surprises. Indeed, this maestro's career has been founded on the ability to turn risk-taking approaches into breathtaking outcomes. Given the divisive nature of his music-making, there is perhaps no symphony more appropriate for his jeopardous approach than Mahler's Third (1895-6), a work that sparked both praise and outrage in equal force upon its Viennese premiere in 1904. As one might expect, this intrepid duo of conductor and composer makes for undeniably absorbing listening.

Mahler's monumental opening gambit receives an utterly enthralling account. We immediately find the LSO on superlative form, the horns and trombones in particular setting the tone with a mighty, spine-tingling collective timbre. The major solos brim with crisp vitality, the legendary trombone statements authoritatively rendered by Dudley Bright. The first return to Mahler's introductory material is seamlessly executed, and the ensuing martial passage in B-flat minor is heard at its most diabolical thanks to some wonderfully raucous outbursts from the woodwinds. Gergiev's strident conclusion is masterful, impeccably pitching the closing bars as the end of a thirty-two-minute first movement, as opposed to a ninety-two-minute symphony.

Whilst these and other individual moments are worthy of mention, the most impressive element of this performance is its global sense of purpose. Every turn of phrase has an innate feeling of rationale which, in turn, makes the listening experience seem a lot less than half-an-hour. The only minor caveat is that the strings – which are very fine throughout – are subject to unfavourable recording balance, and are sometimes drowned into unnatural submission by their non-bowing colleagues.

The ensuing Tempo di Menuetto is no less captivating, albeit for entirely different musical reasoning. Gergiev coaxes some sumptuously sensitive playing from his ensemble, with an emphasis on the refined classical heritage indicated by the movement's title. Again there is evidence of Gergiev's well thought out yet natural-sounding contouring, with the final statement of the principal theme subject to subtle and exquisite added soupçons of rubato. The third movement is similarly successful from its deeply characterised brooding opening to its triumphant conclusion. The show is stolen, however, by Christopher Deacon's offstage flugelhorn, whose resplendent nostalgia is iridescently accompanied by the strings.

Whereas the first movement benefits from Gergiev's forward-moving efforts, a similar method when alto Anna Larsson is added for Mahler's fourth instalment – marked 'Sehr langsam. Misterioso' – is less effective. Though Nietzsche's text both ponders and proclaims, Larsson and Gergiev chose to emphasise exclamation over expressivity in both tempo and dynamics. Furthermore, Larsson's tone – rich though it may be – is, on this occasion, too syrupy for what is ultimately a savoury dish. The music fails to achieve its furtive, shadowy potential until its closing bars, which are deftly engineered by Gergiev. These are radiantly shattered by the incisive voices of the Tiffin Boys' Choir who, along with the highly impressive Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus, deliver a delightfully focussed account of the fifth-movement text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Gergiev's reading of the symphony's epic closing chorale is quicker than most, at a smidgen over twenty minutes. The conductor is out to achieve genuine emotions as opposed to cheap sentiment, and thus any elegantly-sculpted fluctuations in tempo are both deliberately-placed and delicately-paced. There is nevertheless an overwhelming feeling of organicism here. Indeed, the music does, on occasion, threaten to become stirred into frenzy by its own passion and intensity, only for Gergiev to ensure that it calms itself without feeling forcibly restrained. This fervent, affectionate approach results in success similar to that achieved in the opening movement, with crystalline characterisation and a voluptuously unswerving overall shape. Gergiev's conclusion – ardently urging the final bars towards their resplendent close, rather than allowing the music greater latitude in the exultant, D-major arrival at the end of Mahler's epic quest – might be disappointing for some. But it does little to dampen what is a wholly engaging, exhilarating performance.

By William Norris

UK Release Date: 1 November 2008

See also our reviews of other releases in Gergiev's Mahler series with the LSO:
Symphony No 1 here
Symphony No 6 here

Symphony No 7 here

Concert reviews from Gergiev's Mahler series:
Symphonies Nos 1 and 4 here

Symphony No 2 here
Symphonies Nos 5 and 7 here
Symphony No 6 here