The Third Coming ! Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Mahler Symphony no 3 with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall with Michelle DeYoung, the Philharmonia Voices and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. It was live streamed worldwide, an indication of just how important this concert was, for it marks the Philharmonia's 34-year relationship with Salonen. I missed the first concert in 1983 when a very young Salonen substituted at a few days’ notice. The score was new to him, but he learned fast, easrning the respect of the orchestra. In 2007, he conducted Mahler 3 again to mark the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall and its then new season (see here). Shortly afterwards, I was at an airport with members of the orchestra, saying how much they enjoyed working with Salonen, though they didn't realize civilians were listening. Orchestras are often a hard-bitten bunch, so that was praise indeed.
So I booked Salonen's third high profile M3 with the Philharmonia months in advance. (it goes without saying that these weren't the only M3's) No regrets, even though it made a long commute on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The atmosphere in the hall was mellow.. Sitting beside me was a gentleman of 90 who was a junior engineer working on the building of the Royal Festival Hall, nearly 70 years ago. His eyes were shining, as he described the engineering innovations that went into the structure. State of the art, for the time. I didn't understand the technicalities, but what an honour it was to meet someone as enthusiastic as that.
A majestic introduction, establishing the key motives with intense impact. The horns blazed, timpani rolled, the trombones blasted, evoking the majesty of the mountains, evoking the metaphysical mountain peaks to come. Thus the power of Nature, or whatever, versus the individual, in the form of the orchestral leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay. No messing about : Salonen led straight into the fray, rapid marching "footsteps" lit by bright figures in the smaller winds : the idea of setting forth on a brisk spring journey. Danger lies ahead though, as the sharp attacks on percussion suggest, but the vigour of the ensemble playing suggested vigour and energy. And so the vast panorama opened up before our ears, the long lines in the horns suggesting distance. When the principal trombone, Byron Fulcher, entered, he made his instrument sound like a highly sophisticated Alpenhorn. The first movement is long and in some hands it can turn to mush, but Salonen observed the structure carefully, so each transit marked a stage in the journey, moving purposefully forward. Wonderful rushing "descents" the way you feel leaping downhill after scaling a peak. Peak after peak, vistas stretching endlessly ahead. This first movement is a work-out. At the end, Salonen drank what seemed to be a whole bottle of water.
The next two movements aren't a respite, but rather a way of looking at other vistas, perhaps from the past. Memories of sun-drenched meadows and shepherds’ flutes perhaps, but still the pace is fleet. Exquisite playing, so beautiful that it felt painful to know it couldn't possibly last forever, probably the point Mahler was trying to make. A delightfully sassy Comodo, confident and brisk, like a cheeky Ländler becoming a joyful romp. Pan rushes in, with merry anarchy. But why does Mahler add the posthorn call, deliberately heard from a distance ? I love this passage because it makes you think. The panorama here is something so vast, it's beyond earthly vision.
Michelle DeYoung, as magnificent as the mountains. Her voice was rich and moving, but visually. she embodies the majesty in the fourth movement. This does make a difference, because she's singing about Eternity, not merely the experience of man, and it helps when a singer can fill the auditorium with her presence. "Die Welt ist tief, und tiefer als der Tag gedacht". Earth Mother here is absolutely of the essence. Another moment which I wanted never to end. This symphony is a rollercoaster between beauty and loss, despite its overall positive thrust. Thus the juxtaposition of the eternal Erda and the fresh, young voices of the Tiffin Boys’ Choir an d the women of the Philharmonia Voices - past and future, struggle and rebirth. Mahler's Fourth already looming into focus. Or Das Lied von der Erde, for that matter.
A lustrous, shimmering final movement, the Philharmonia strings drawing their lines so they seemed to search out beyond earthly horizons. Yet note the quiet tolling, as if a bell were being rung, marking the passage of time. Excellent balance between the different string sections, creating a rich mass of sound that seemed to vibrate like the very pulse of life. Perhaps now the "individual" has reached a place beyond human comprehension. The violin soared, pure and clear, soloist leading the ensemble still further onwards. A hint of the "Alpine" melody and then crescendo after crescendo, echoing the structure of the First movement. At the end, the purity of the flute, quiet pizzicato "footsteps" and the return of the trumpet, horn and trombone themes. Structure matters so much in the interpretation of this symphony and Salonen has its measure. MGM last moments, but in a good, spiritually rewarding way.