Paavo Järvi’s Mahler Third: a fabulous and treasurable performance

In the wrong performance Mahler’s Third Symphony can be a burden on the listener and I have very often found this the most difficult of his symphonies to bring off in concerts. I had vowed never to listen to another performance of the work in the concert hall after Bernard Haitink’s 2004 Berlin Philharmonic one at the Barbican which was the most perfect performance imaginable of the work; none I ever heard came close to surpassing it. When I returned to the work, for Opera Today in 2018, it was for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons – a long slide downhill, and it’s been largely that direction since.

What a surprise, even a shock, Paavo Järvi’s Mahler Third with the Philharmonia Orchestra turned out to be, however. He is not a conductor I have previously enjoyed in this composer. His Mahler Sixth, with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, lacked the one thing that symphony most needs – a sense of devastation to it. It was powerless rather than powerful. This Mahler, however, was something of an epiphany.

No performance of this behemoth of symphonies is ever going to work without great playing and here Järvi had the Philharmonia on blistering, unmatchable form. Given the details he got from the orchestra (which I will come to), the sheer brilliance of the brass playing (especially the trombones – some of the best on this instrument I have heard from any orchestra in a very long time), and the glorious string playing it was little surprise that Järvi’s fluid, yet powerful, way with symphony worked so convincingly. It was certainly long – just short of 100-minutes – but as with all great performances perfectly right.

What we hear today as Mahler’s Third is not originally how Mahler conceived it. Planned in seven movements – not the six we have – there was originally no plan for the Nietzsche setting from Also sprach Zarathustra and the Wunderhorn text. The Adagio would have been placed in the middle of the symphony, not at the end. Mahler’s revision of the symphony would become enormous in scope. The first movement alone, within its more than half-hour structure, utilizes almost every Mahlerian genre: the march, the recitative, the funeral march, the arioso, the song without words, the chorale, the music from far away (in modern performances, from the wings or high up in the concert hall) and the fanfare. Although the music is thematically about nature in a positive sense, with an emphasis on Pan awakening at the beginning of the symphony and the creation of life itself, the funeral marches and recitative-arioso very much show Pan sleeping and nature becoming lifeless. In the Development, Mahler directs us towards the vast March, spread over 100 bars, as the beginning of the battle and the south storm. It’s a movement of distinctive contrast, different tonal blend – very much in inverse power to the equally enormous Sixth.

Järvi’s layout of the Philharmonia had much to do with how we heard the inner details of this movement – mostly following the Japanese format – basses left, timpani right, divided strings, cellos in the centre, harps placed within the orchestra – this was almost a revelation as far as Mahler Thirds have been in the Festival Hall. What Järvi did here can best be described as telescoping – from the granite power of the orchestra’s incisive momentum flints were chipped off with razor sharp clarity in instrumental solos. Careful attention to the strings at the opening, for example, had given us magnificent 16th-note runs in the basses that weren’t just precise they were in tempo for once. This was matched by equally well-balanced triplets in the brass coming from the other side of the orchestra. There was no hazing of the woodwind here, either – oboes and clarinets that played with a bloom in the early part of movement, almost as if the instruments were in some chrysalis state, awakening with a kind of blossoming glow which developed into sudden, destructive power during the storm sequence. Brass balance, so often a problem in this symphony, were almost ideal – the opening horns had been sonorous, but not overly projected. Trombones were stellar, the sound so blended one could almost have taken them for a single instrument. As Järvi marched like a soldier on the rostrum the orchestra willingly followed him.

There was something beguiling about the second movement – the briskness of it, its beautiful precision working like clockwork, but with a freedom of expression that was unusually joyful, and sheer playfulness. The woodwind were superb, courting in couplets or triplets, or blossoming as they played. It all seemed effortless, even the glorious playing of the final string variation. Unlike Nelsons, who struggled with his Mahler Third from this point onwards, Järvi’s Animal movement, got its complex structure pretty much right. Although it is a Scherzo it is really no such thing – it’s part scherzando, scherzo, polk, plus there are two post-horn episodes. The dynamics can be problematic at the end of the second post-horn section from bars 529 – 556 – shifting from ppp to fff and then to pppp, not unmanageable but often indistinctive between the former and latter in live performances.

It’s the contrast which is important here – softness, but it needs to be poetic in expression, and the Übermut music which needs to be raucous, but managed with a sense of anarchy. There were some beautifully parodistic effects here, and a beautiful, uncomplicated, post-horn solo from James Fountain on an F – trumpet (presumably). These animals were living in the habitat of terror for once, and despite the beauty of the playing the underlying tension was always one of fear and horror, as Mahler intentionally wanted it to sound.

Nietzsche’s “Mitternacht” from Also sprach Zarathustra has one interesting textual variation – the repetition of the word ‘tiefe’ (‘r’ or ‘m’) – translated from the German as deep. Perhaps partly for this reason, the lines are sung by a mezzo-soprano – although Mahler found many things in the song to ignite his fascination with it: midnight, dream, pain, decay and often the obverse of these. The music is like nothing else in this symphony – it never rises above piano, its predominant sound is in fifths on cellos and basses or tremolos on the violas. Its harmonics are in the major-minor shift. It is unique in the pairing of instruments – here you’ll a find trombone and flute in unison. Conductors can be indifferent about this music, often to the extent that the music is played briskly rather than the magical sense of mystery it needs.

It is not necessarily impossible for a live performance to lack the cavernous atmosphere this song ideally wants. Järvi was careful opening up the depth of the Philharmonia strings enough that they sounded neither too small nor too overstated, so his mezzo emerged with striking clarity. Hongni Wu, however, was an uncertain and uneven soloist. The voice is not overly dark for this music, nor is it richly coloured enough. If Mahler’s instrumentation is often ingenious the voice needs to be both angelic and profound and it was sometimes lacking in both here to compete with the orchestration and Järvi’s distinctive interpretation of it. With a blander conductor, and a less virtuoso orchestra, Hongni Wu’s “Mitternacht” would have managed with its less-rich tone and sometimes indifferent attention to dynamics – piano and pianissimo were somewhat blurred.

Ironically, she was first-rate in the fifth movement as she managed to coalesce around the Tiffin Boys’ Choir (just wonderful) and the Philharmonia Choir (Ladies) – gloriously pure, and angelic. Andris Nelsons had – somewhat inexplicably – used a girls’ choir for the more usual boys one (a musical disaster) but here we had the movement as it should be done and it was superb. The timbre was so distinctive, the a cappella singing such a joy, that even with the horror of the middle section with its tam-tams, and funeral march, and the haunting fever of death hanging over the music, the voices were a miracle of sweetness.

The great Adagio of the Third is in one sense a dissolution. There are interludes of intensity within it, but it drives towards peace in the end. Sectional the movement maybe – it is composed in four distinct structures – but the greatest performances of it are entirely holistic and take the movement in a single arc of spiritual intensity. Haitink did precisely this in 2004, something I experienced with no conductor before or since with this work. Järvi couldn’t manage this either – but he came very much closer to doing so than almost any other performance of this symphony I can remember. Beautifully played, it had wonderful flow, a broad tempo that was elastic enough to really defy the clock, and none of the speeding up of the closing measures towards the double timpani climax where a loss of nobility and monumentality can sometimes mar the end of the symphony.

Järvi’s Third was simply terrific, notably the finest performance of the work since I heard that great Haitink one back in 2004. This concert would, I might add, have been impossible without its two choruses a reminder, despite recent attempts of cultural barbarism in the United Kingdom to extinguish one great choir, that performances of Mahler’s choral symphonies are entirely reliant on a centuries-old tradition.

Mahler’s Third, however, is going back into mothballs for this reviewer – Haitink and Järvi are enough to remember great performances of this symphony.

Marc Bridle

Hongni Wu (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Voices (ladies), Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Paavo Järvi (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra.

Royal Festival Hall, London; 16th March 2023.