Mahler’s Third Symphony launches Prague Symphony Orchestra’s UK tour

A gruelling travel itinerary with five performances of the longest symphony
in the standard repertoire doesn’t necessarily make a comfortable ride in
terms of logistics, especially when two choirs (women’s and children’s
voices) need to be locally sourced for several performances. Little wonder
on opening night there was a sense of an orchestra holding back, keeping
its collective powder dry. Pacing is everything on an orchestral tour, and
a similar sense of keeping something in reserve might also be applied to
the Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen whose efficient and understated
direction of this gargantuan work (played without an interval and coming in
at about one hour and forty minutes) drew some fine, if uneven, playing
from his Czech forces.

With its extraordinary blend of the sublime and the commonplace, Mahler’s
Third Symphony – written in an unassuming little hut in the middle of an
Alpine field – inhabits a sweeping grandeur that inflates the genre well
beyond convention. Its mix of garish marches, rustic folk tunes and
hymn-like apotheosis bring together a celebration of the natural world
along with high-minded ideals from Nietzsche, all compressed into an
ambitious design that confounded William Walton who declared, ‘It’s all
very well, but you can’t call that a symphony’. It’s a work fraught with
challenges, not least the need to integrate its earthy and exalted manner
into a satisfying and coherent whole. In many respects Inkinen met this
challenge head on, creating a handsome, well-judged account that grew in
stature and emotional power, By the end I was won over, largely by his
impressive control over its vast structure. This was no flawless account by
any means, but there was sufficient certainty of direction and accuracy of
playing to engineer no small achievement.

The striding opening theme was cleanly despatched by eight horns and
heralded a thirty-minute plus span of accumulating momentum and drama. The
Anvil’s bright acoustic allowed plenty of detail to register, and for the
most part the orchestra produced a well-balanced tone, if a tad lightweight
from its eight double basses. Occasionally, there could have been more
rhythmic bite, as in the somewhat limp upward scales from the lower strings
– marked to be played wild and triple forte. Elsewhere,
the solo violin might have been more tender and the solo trombone less
effortful. But the playing overall gave full expression to the gravitas and
jollity of Mahler’s vision, with plenty of swagger in climaxes where a
shrieking piccolo and two timpanists were not afraid to come to the fore.

There was a gentle nod to indulgence in the Minuet, its summer flowers
charmingly lit by oboe and pizzicato strings at the start and thence a
flowing account in which playful woodwind brought much effervescence to
this musical Garden of Eden. If the creatures of the forest (as Mahler once
subtitled his third movement) needed a little more definition, there was no
escaping the clarity of the post-horn. Despite being hidden away in a
corridor, Marek Zvol·nek’s trumpet scorched the air with no chance of
sounding distant and realising the composer’s evocation of primal

Pavl? was a poised and rich-toned mezzo-soprano for her ‘Midnight
Song’, and as her intonation and sense of involvement developed so the
movement gained in intensity. Hopes to hear the mournful rising third
from first oboe (marked hinaufziehen – drawn upwards) remained unfulfilled – a shame as it’s a characterful
quirk from Mahler. Apart from its suggestive cry of a night bird, its
ear-catching glissando is surely endorsed by the composer’s wish that ‘the whole of nature
finds a voice’.

Pavl? was joined by the women of the Brighton Festival Chorus and the
Tiffin Boys’ Choir who acquitted themselves with conspicuous joy and
forthright tone in the ‘angels’ movement – Peter’s journey to heaven.
They were easily heard above the clangour of tubular bell and too when
softer dynamics demanded, the whole aided and abetted by a no-nonsense
tempo. It was the heaven-storming Adagio,
‘ What love tells me’, that found Inkinen in his element. This was a
wonderfully translucent reading; noble and of searching inwardness, with
solo flute and resplendent brass adding to the rapt serenity and eventual
triumph, this last thrillingly captured by unrestrained timpani. If earlier
playing had occasionally felt routine this was a superbly redemptive close
and left me in no doubt of this conductor’s promising future.

David Truslove

Ester Pavl? (mezzo-soprano), Pietari Inkinen (conductor), Brighton Festival Chorus, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Prague Symphony Orchestra,

The Anvil, Basingstoke; Thursday 7th November 2019.

product_title=Mahler Symphony No.3 – Prague Symphony Orchestra at The Anvil, Basingstoke
product_by=A review by David Truslove
product_id=Above: Ester Pavl?

Photo credit: Josef Rabara