Thursday 5 August 2010

Prom 24: BBC SSO/Runnicles - Mahler, Symphony no.3, 4 August 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Mahler – Symphony no.3

Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
Edinburgh Festival Chorus (chorus master: Christopher Bell)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

And still they come: the pace will only increase over the next year or so. Still, I can hardly criticise the frequency of Mahler performances when I make such an effort to attend a good number myself. What I think unwise is the number of inessential performances, those without anything to say. (We all know a good few of those: no names just at the moment…) Would Donald Runnicles and his Scottish forces fall into this category? It seemed unlikely.

And so, the first movement burst on to the scene with nothing of the inessential to it. urgent, with sonorous, Wagnerian brass and mysterious bass drum, one sensed Mahler’s music emerge from the depths. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s cellos provided a near-ideal attack and depth of tone, whilst trumpets sounded properly militaristic. The feeling of primæval stirring was aided by trombones, moving with the import of tectonic plates. Something was coming into focus: not arbitrary, but as yet unnamed. And from this, uncertain, fantastical march music emerged, Janus-faced: looking back to the Romantics and forward to the Second Viennese School. No wonder Schoenberg reacted so deliriously to the first Viennese performance in 1904, extolling the revelation of ‘a human being, a drama, truth, the most ruthless truth!’ Runnicles ensured that the Third Symphony’s place in Mahler’s great symphonic progression was assured, echoes of its predecessor’s death and resurrection quite rightly belying the ‘fun’ of the march, without entirely negating it. The conductor’s sense of purpose did not prevent, but rather enabled, those strange metaphysical moments of stillness that penetrate to the very heart of Mahler’s music: fine work here and elsewhere from guest leader Marcia Crayford. And whilst the BBC SSO’s woodwind sometimes sounded a little feeble, there was no gainsaying the deathly marionettes revealed by its clarinets: wonderfully sardonic, suggesting an Alpine band on acid. The development section closed with a sophisticated primitivism that looked forward to the Rite of Spring: an unexpected and intriguing suggestion. Thereafter, the recapitulation quite rightly recapitulated, but its material, equally rightly, sounded anew, with presentiments of the Nietzschean stillness of the fourth movement (a mobile telephone interruption notwithstanding). Joy, far from unalloyed, triumphed in the final march and dash – but predicated, as it should be, upon the journey that had preceded it. Applause at the movement’s end was bad enough but applause for the entry of soloist, Karen Cargill, a little while afterwards was surely a philistinism too far even for this audience.

A warm, lilting second movement allowed the strings to bloom. (How different this was from the poor showing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under lacklustre Jiři Bělohlávek for the opening night’s Mahler Eighth!) Crucially, Runnicles imparted surefooted harmonic direction – and winning but never exaggerated rubato. The opening light swing of the third movement was equally delightful, though Runnicles did not undersell the accompanying grotesqueries. Some of the subsequent material would have benefited from greater flexibility, though: it sounded almost as if these were bars to play through in order to reach the following movement. The posthorn entry, however, was duly heart-stopping: again, that stillness within a sure dramatic narrative. Wunderhorn echoes were beautifully clear – and meaningful. There were a few instances of orchestral untidiness but nothing too crucial.

Amidst the coughing and a person in the arena not only receiving but taking (!) a telephone call, somehow the mystery of Zarathustra won through for the ‘O Mensch!…’ movement. Cargill’s diction was superb – and there was marvellous depth to her voice too. We were spared the modish glissando interpretation of Mahler’s hinaufziehen marking, but the oboe sounded just a little plain, lacking in mystery. However, Crayford’s violin solo was marvellous: almost a final echo of a Bachian obbligato. There was spirited singing in the fifth movement; again diction was very fine. Runnicles poised the music nicely between dream and nightmare, with snarling yet still fairy-tale-like brass contributing greatly. However, there was one serious drawback: the use of mostly girls’ voices, with a few boys thrown in. Not that they did anything wrong, but there is a world of difference in sound between boys and girls – and this movement needs echoes of Tölz or Vienna, or better still the real thing. There was a sad impression of having spoiled the ship for a ha’porth of tar.

Finally, the great slow movement. It opened beautifully, with pregnant suggestion of opening out to come. Runnicles certainly did not linger; indeed, the music sounded unusually impassioned, even angry, at times. There was, moreover, often a sense of it being a little too moulded at times. Whereas three years ago at the Proms, I had admired the extraordinary level of the performers’ musicianship in the performance from Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, yet had sometimes missed a stronger sense of conductor’s vision, here too many bar lines, beats even, were too clearly audible. It is an extraordinary difficult thing to get the balance right: Pierre Boulez certainly did in Berlin in 2007, and I have heard Bernard Haitink do so too, but Runnicles seemed to be trying too hard, especially at climaxes. There was true nobility to be heard, though; I should not wish to carp unduly. There were, however, other factors that detracted: one, a high-heeled walk-out from three women a few rows in front, in this of all music; another, a few too many slips from the brass, less consistent than at their first-movement best. This was not, then, quite the crowning glory for which one would wish, but if one were left once again staggered at Mahler’s achievement, a great deal that was right had been done.