Original Post: http://www.musicweb-international.com/Mahler/Mahler3.htm by Tony Duggan (1954-2012)
Mahler Symphony No.3
The Third Symphony is Mahler’s hymn to the natural world and his longest work. It was largely composed in the summer of 1895 after an exhausting and troubling period that pitched him into feverish creative activity. Bruno Walter visited him at that time and as Mahler met him off the ferry Walter looked up at the spectacular alpine vistas around him only to be told: "No use looking up there, that’s all been composed by me." Mahler was inspired by the grandeur around him at the very deepest level of feeling and also by visions of Pan and Dionysus. In fact by a sense of every natural creative force in the universe infusing him into "one great hymn to the glory of every aspect of creation", or, as Deryck Cooke put it: "a concept of existence in its totality."
To deliver a convincing performance of the Third I believe the conductor must do two things before anything else. Firstly, in spite of the fact that the work falls into Mahler's "anthologising" strand, along with Das Klagende Lied, the Second and Eighth Symphonies, the overriding structural imperative linking the six movements must be a pattern of ascending steps based loosely on the evolutionary ladder within broadly-based Pantheistic cosmology. In these terms the six movements are:
1] Inorganic nature summoned into life by Pan, characterised as summer after winter
2] Plant and vegetable life
3] Animal life
4] Human life represented as spiritual darkness
5] Heavenly life represented as childish innocence which, when combined with 5, brings
6] God expressed as, and through, Love.
Mahler’s original titles for these movements were:
1] "Summer Marches in"
2] "What the Meadow Flowers tell me
3] "What the Creatures of the Forest Tell Me"
4] "What Night Tells Me"
5] "What the Morning Bells Tell Me"
6] "What God Tells Me"
The conductor who fails to see this "ladder of ascent" and make it manifest is one who makes the mistake of concentrating too hard on getting the first and last movements right and neglects the movements in between, treating them as interludes rather than steps on the journey to perfection fashioned out of the world around and beyond. The first movement must also retain a degree of independence since Mahler designates it Part I with the remaining movements Part II. This leads to the second thing I believe the conductor must do and that is render the seemingly disparate elements of the first movement into a rigorously-wrought whole when the nature of its thirty-five minutes sets it on course for structural failure. There must be no doubt on the part of the conductor as to the movement's greatness and this includes an awareness of, and an ability to bring out, the rougher edges woven into it. Any attempt to "prettify" or "smooth out" the first movement leads ultimately to a blunting of its special power and so to failure. It’s a hard thing to quantify but it’s something you know is there at a deep level at certain "way points" and in the way you can give in to its atmosphere, hallucinatory qualities and lack of doubt in itself. I think it’s also true that a conductor's confidence in the rightness of Mahler's vision in the first movement stands him in good stead for the rest. Those conductors who get the first aspect right tend to get the second right, and are therefore, for me, the greatest interpreters of this symphony.
It is very hard many decades after a first performance to try to gauge the effect a piece of music first had on its early audiences. When something has become so familiar, loved, venerated even, to try to imagine "the shock of the new" that must have seized people at the time is a tall order. But it is an idea we should try to bear in mind if we can and so should the performer. When Mahler wrote his Third Symphony he was a young man wanting to make a very big noise in the world, to try to shake people out of complacency. In the first movement it has always seemed to me that Mahler was saying to his audience, to use modern slang, "Eat my score!" and any performance of the piece that falls short of giving an impression of that attitude is just not trying hard enough. Or at least is trying too hard to be accepted in now more polite circles. So I think it takes a particular kind of conductor to turn in a great Mahler Third. No place for the tentative or the sophisticated, particularly in the first movement which will dominate how the rest of the symphony comes to sound no matter how good the rest is. No place for apologies in that first movement especially. The lighter and lyrical passages will largely take care of themselves. It’s the "dirty end" of the music - low brass and percussion, shrieking woodwinds, growling basses, flatulent trombone solos - that the conductor must really immerse himself in. A regrettable trait of musical "political correctness" seems to have crept into more recent performances and recordings and that is to be deplored. The edges need to be sharp, the drama challenging, Mahler’s gestalt shrieking, marching, surging, seething and, at key moments, hitting the proverbial fan.
Sir John Barbirolli passes this test impressively. In March 1969 he recorded the work under studio conditions for the BBC and this is now available on BBC Legends (BBCL 4004-7). No matter what observations one might care to make about his treatment of individual sections, matters of phrasing, dynamics and expression, his vision of this work was emphatically of this journey upwards in carefully graded steps. He also grasped completely the first movement's totality with no doubt as to its validity and he wasn’t ashamed of it or its rough edges and elemental texture. The opening on eight horns is vigorous, rude and raucous. The recording then allows us to hear grumbles and groans on percussion as primeval nature bestirs, even though the crucial uprushes on lower strings are a little disappointing when compared with some where they are made to really "kick". The section that introduces Pan himself contains a ripe delivery of the trombone solo and when other members of the section join in, forward and close-miked, the effect of their lament comes over black as doom. The role of what passes as Exposition is the delivery of the brassy "in your face" march meant to signify summer's arrival. Though with this being Mahler he insists on hurling the workaday world into the maelstrom. Mahler loved his marches as much as Elgar did and this one is his most joyous and so it comes over under Barbirolli. The moment of its arrival in this recording has a particular quality which I can't imagine any other orchestra bringing. If workers in Vienna inspired Mahler, Barbirolli seems to have had in mind the holiday resorts in the north of England at the height of summer some time in the past, the forties or fifties, perhaps. There's a hint of the Promenade at Blackpool: the whiff of fish and chips, the sun catching the silver paper on the "Kiss Me Quick" hats, the tang of petrol from charabancs depositing mill girls from the looms of Manchester on Bank Holiday Monday. Then at 347 we are dragged back to the natural world with all its splendour as the horns roar out the theme from the start and the Development is underway. I like the way Barbirolli balances his brass sections here. It shows the value of the orchestra having played in "live" performances before. The important passage at 530-642 is where Mahler develops on the idea of marching and he marks each section differently, something a conductor must take note of. "The Rabble", "The Battle Begins", "The South Storm" are all acknowledged by Barbirolli and this has the effect of making the music seem to comment on itself. I was also put in mind of some of the wilder sections of Ives in the way the marches, broken down into constituent moods, seem to criss-cross each other in mesmerising half-nightmare. There is some lovely playing from the cellos prior to the return of the march proper. The portamenti the players indulge are quintessential Barbirolli. But this is swept away because the march has one more appearance to make. This time I was more aware of the long crescendo that will bring about a conclusion to the movement. The frenzy of the coda, starting at Figure 74, where the orchestra explodes into wild and crazy vistas, is well brought off. Though not even Barbirolli can match Horenstein here whose LSO brass are absolutely shattering.
There is enough of a sense of contrast between the first and second movements to mark the change from Part I to Part II but not too much to deny this is the next "step" in our ascent. There's certainly no question of treating the movement as a lightweight interlude and the second movement is a lot subtler than is sometimes realised, so the conductor must lavish the same care on it he would everything else. Barbirolli’s walk through the flowers in the meadows doesn't take the pretty route. There are stinging nettles beyond the blooms and we stumble into them in the way the woodwind allows spiky sounds to come through. The rhythm is also nicely pointed when the tempo picks up, which means when it relaxes into lyricism the effect is that much more nostalgic. Barbirolli next adopts a slightly slower tempo in the third movement but this allows a little more room to make rhythmic points and bring out character. I don't think I've heard the rollicking brass descents two bars before 9 and likewise before 23 delivered quite so loudly and with such precision at such volume. Barbirolli must have drilled his players meticulously. The crucial posthorn episode, our first glimpse of humanity, is beautifully prepared but the first posthorn is closer than we are used to. However, the section between the two appearances of the posthorn makes up for any misgivings by being gloriously raucous. If the posthorn represents the first appearance of humanity then nature has the final word with the unforgettable passage at bars 529-556: a crescendo from ppp to fff followed by a diminuendo back down to pppp replete with harp glissandi. This passage has at its centre, a development of one of the bird call motifs to become "The heavy shadow of lifeless nature", rearing up on horns and trombones. It links back to the first movement and forward to the end and is a key moment of crisis that should be marked with special emphasis so we feel threatened. Barbirolli prided himself on being able to recognise highlights and climaxes in each Mahler symphony and there's no doubt he gives this passage everything it can stand. I would have liked a little more Stygian gloom for the fourth movement which is a setting of Nietzsche's "Oh Mensch" and the first appearance of the voice. Kerstin Meyer is a fine singer but you can hear too much of her for her contribution to be as mysterious as it ought to be. I did like the way Barbirolli appears to want us to make the connection between her accompaniment and the start of the first movement, though. A nice contrast arrives with the boys and women in the fifth movement and a return to the Wunderhorn world heralding dawn with bells tolling. The boys of Manchester Grammar School are nowhere near the angelic voices we are used to. These are urchins from the mean streets of Manchester and give an earthier quality to match the purer sounds of the women and the darker, warmer tone of Meyer. Compared with some, Barbirolli is more expressive and "heart-on-sleeve" in the last movement and the big-heartedness of it all is overwhelming. This is a true journey's end that couldn't have been won by this conductor in any other way. Notice Sir John’s expressive rubato and the singing line of cello portamenti. His inability to resist speeding up at moments of release later on spoils this movement's serenity just a little, though. But take that away and it would not have been a Barbirolli performance at all. The end is built to masterly fashion within Barbirolli's warm-hearted view. He presses forward in the closing pages and can't resist almost a luftpause before the last chord of all. But he keeps his timpani under control, just as he should, and justifies his view of the end as a safe harbour nobly won.
A couple of months after Sir John’s death the Mahler expert Deryck Cooke declared this "one of the finest Mahler performances I have ever heard" and I certainly concur with that. A sentiment confirmed by an international jury of critics at the Mahlerwoche in Toblach in 2000 when they gave the recording the award for best stereo Mahler recording of 1999. It's quite a close-in sound especially made for broadcast, almost a conductor's balance with every detail clear. Some may find the reproduction of the brass troublesome but with good remastering it comes over bold, brassy and exuberant like the symphony itself and Sir John's interpretation which more than makes up for any shortcomings in the Hallé’s playing. They are some way from the finest but you would have to have a heart of stone and a pair of ears to match to let occasional lapses in ensemble and fluffed notes bother you very much. There is poetry here, there is drama, and there is a performance that reflects a world of feeling now gone.
Testament have given an official release to a "live" Berlin Philharmonic recording of the Third conducted by Barbirolli from 1966. Even though this is the Berlin Philharmonic the standard of the playing falls below what you would expect from that orchestra and, as with their Mahler Second with Barbirolli, there is just not enough familiarity with the music for this to challenge the Hallé version on BBC Legends.
Another of the work’s greatest interpreters was Jascha Horenstein whose Unicorn recording of 1970 is, for the moment, still available (UKCD2006/7 and also in a boxed set of symphonies by various conductors on Brilliant 99549). The playing of the London Symphony Orchestra is remarkable for character, unfailing alertness and ability to reflect every aspect of Horenstein’s view of the work. The result of a number of "live" performances. The introductory section of the first movement is gutsy and elemental, not at all a comfortable start. Just the kind of impression Mahler must have had in mind when he pointed Walter’s attention to the mountainous landscapes. Notice how the first trombone solo, heavy with funeral dread, conveys a sense of expectancy. Notice too how Horenstein can vary his approach straight after to take in delicacy. It’s Horenstein’s total grasp of every aspect of the first movement and his matchless sense of structure that welds the movement into an expressive whole and rivets the attention throughout. It also allows him to mark a real spiritual aspect in the episode of the march in the way it approaches from a distance before bursting on us and coming to a climax that is, like the opening, raw and rugged. I’ve always believed Horenstein was aware there is a lot more than mere programme music here. Notice how order and chaos seem genuinely pitched against each other in the central section where the marches meet. In this we can witness an aspect Arnold Schoenberg drew attention to. That this movement (and the symphony as a whole) is a struggle between good and evil. Horenstein certainly conveys struggle here to a greater extent than many conductors do. The close of the movement sees the performance emerge on the side of the angels but not before Horenstein delivers the most breathtaking account of the closing pages themselves. At Fig. 74, where harp glissandi introduce an explosion of brass, Horenstein grades the brass dynamics from fortissimo, through piano and then up to triple forte, with the latter absolutely shattering. No other conductor on record quite matches this moment. The crashing and pounding percussion that follows are really abandoned also. Magnificent.
The second movement is, as with Barbirolli and as we will find with Leonard Bernstein, the perfect Prelude to Part II and distinguished again by the playing of the LSO’s woodwinds. Horenstein also notes the darker sides of the movement, realising these are not just pretty blooms in the meadow being depicted, but weeds too. In the third movement there’s a hazy, nostalgic feel in evidence, but when muscularity is called for, as with the first movement, Horenstein is not found wanting. The posthorn solo is played on a flügelhorn making this one of the most distinctive accounts before us. Notice also how Horenstein pays attention to the phrasing of the woodwind around the solo. The great "way point" of this movement, the rearing up of raw nature prior to the gallop for home, finds Horenstein and his players really on their toes. The "Oh Mensch" fourth movement is dark and atmospheric but detailed also. This is a perfect tempo for this movement and so Norma Proctor is given all the space she needs to make every word clear. Clarity is also the keynote in the fifth movement where the boys are a joy – sharp and cheeky in the way they burst in on the silence. Though intensely beautiful in parts, Horenstein doesn’t neglect the drama and tension implicit in the sixth movement and doesn’t stand in the way of the great beauty and sense of contemplation. This great Brucknerian also brings out the qualities the movement seems to inherit from that composer in the music’s sense of slumberous growth. The end emerges naturally with the final timpani notes very prominent, a feature of this recording, which leads me to say the sound balance is not ideal. It favours the winds with the lower strings especially further back in the picture than they should be. But this is the only cloud on the horizon of this classic recording. In lesser hands this symphony can sag in parts. Never once under Horenstein is there any sense of that. His concentration is stunning and every bar seems to have something to say. This remains one of the greatest recordings of any Mahler symphony ever set down and I think it always will.
Over the years my high regard in this survey for these two recordings by Barbirolli and Horenstein have generated more critical comment than any of my choices across the whole synoptic survey both in private e-mails and in public internet forums. True, there are more who will go along with my estimation of the Horenstein recording, but even I have to admit I plough quite a lonely furrow where the Barbirolli recording is concerned. So it goes. I will carry on singing the praises of both these recordings in the general profile. I can do no other but write what I feel and hope those interested will listen with open ears. As I say in my Preface, this survey is a personal selection.
Less disagreement greets my high regard for Leonard Bernstein in this work, of course. Of his two studio recordings with the New York Philharmonic I prefer his first one on Sony (SM2K 47 576). It’s much the same interpretation as on the later DG release but the playing of the NYPO in 1961 has more sense of discovery. I also think the earlier recording, though showing its age, is still a better sound picture overall. Bernstein is alive to every nuance of the score but, as in his recording of the Seventh from the same period, he lets the music speak for itself right the way through. That isn’t to say his reading doesn’t have distinctive qualities, not least in the first movement. At the start there’s a definite feeling of a journey beginning as the horns roar and there’s also a sense of latent energy. This is a feeling that will persist and is what infuses the great uprushes from the lower strings in the opening pages which are projected with superb attack from the New York players. As too are the woodwind choir’s squawks, like birds on a wire startled into life by some noise at dusk. Following the great trombone solo Bernstein segues seamlessly into the main exposition material where the march of summer finds him in characteristically exuberant mood. If Barbirolli’s march was Blackpool Promenade on August Bank Holiday, Bernstein’s is New York’s Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day, and none the worse for that. His explicit sense of the march material means his treatment of the crucial central episode (530-640) comes off splendidly with the tensions of "live" performance and more than a nod towards Charles Ives, a composer who must have been in this of all conductor’s mind. There is tremendous frenzy whipped up here with every subtle change of tempi taken care of and a definite sense of danger that seems most appropriate. The conclusion crowns the movement with power, grandeur and excitement combined. I could imagine some finding Bernstein’s exuberance in this movement just over the top, but this music is "over the top" to start with so Bernstein and Mahler just about balance this time.
There is lovely attention to detail in the second movement and a real sense of flight in the quicker passages. Most important of all Bernstein realises this is a prelude to what follows and there is no sense of relaxation, even though the felicities of the score make their nostalgic effect. The latter also applies to the third movement that finds a slightly more relaxed tempo than some recordings. This allows the woodwind especially to convey the charm of the music by articulating every note and for everyone else to get across a real swing to the animated passages. The rollicking brass should bring a smile to your face if you have ever heard more sober views. The posthorn solo is sweet and mellow proving, as elsewhere, that Bernstein can relax when he needs to. Around the second appearance of the posthorn he also gets his strings to throw a shimmering haze around the player which is magical. Then when raw nature rears up at 529 the effect is even more big-boned, sexy and dramatic than it might have been. The fourth movement’s "Oh Mensch" brings some rapt playing and Martha Lipton is a veiled witness. The fifth movement with the boys and women comes over remarkably restrained for Bernstein. A bigger choir might have helped and maybe this is the only movement where I feel any great sense of disappointment. Bernstein takes the last movement slowly and with great dedication. However, unlike some, he brings that kind of tempi off because he never overloads it with too much emotional weight. He seems to have realised the music has plenty of its own already in it. All flows from within, just as it should, and the attention is held from first bar to last and an ultimate triumph that is natural and solid.
Rafael Kubelik’s excellent DG studio version is currently available only as part of his complete cycle (463 738-2) but has always been for me on a par with Barbirolli and Horenstein. It has one main drawback in that the recorded balance is, like the rest of his Munich studio cycle, close-miked and somewhat lacking in atmosphere. It never bothered me that much but just occasionally I felt the need for a little more space. As luck would have it, since the first version of this survey appeared, an Audite release (23.403) in their series of "live" Mahler performances from Kubelik’s Munich years in the archives of Bavarian Radio has now appeared. It even comes from the same week as the DG studio version and must have been the concert performance mounted to give the players the chance to perform the work prior to recording in the empty hall. It goes some way to addressing the problem of recorded balance in that there is a degree more space and atmosphere and also more separation across the stereo arc. It thus offers an even more satisfying experience whilst still delivering Kubelik’s gripping and involving interpretation with the added tensions of "live" performance. There is a little background tape hiss but nothing that the true music lover need fear. So, like with the Barbirolli, (and the Scherchen and Martinon recordings) dealt with below), here is yet another "not originally made for release" broadcast recording of Mahler’s Third for the list of top recommendations.
Like all great Mahler Thirds it has a fierce unity and a striking sense of purpose across the whole six movements, lifting it above so many versions that miss this crucial aspect. Tempi are faster than you may be used to, let me stress. It also pays as much attention to the inner movements as it does the outer with playing of poetry, charm and that hard-to-pin-down aspect, wonderment. In the first movement Kubelik echoes Schoenberg’s belief that this is a struggle between good and evil, generating the real tension needed to mark this. Listen to the gathering together of all the threads for the central storms section, for an example. Kubelik also comes close to Barbirolli’s raucous, unforgettable "grand day out up North" march spectacle and shares his British colleague’s and Leonard Bernstein’s sense of the sheer wackiness of it all. (Why are modern day conductors so afraid to see this aspect?) Listen to the wonderful Bavarian basses and cellos rocking the world with their uprushing basses and those raw, rude trombone solos as black as an undertaker’s hat and about as delicate as a Bronx cheer or an East End Raspberry. Kubelik also manages to give the impression of the movement as a living organism, growling and purring in passages of repose particularly, fur bristling like a cat in a thunderstorm. Too often you have the feeling in this movement that conductors cannot get over how long it is and so they want to make it sound big by making it last for ever. In fact it is a superbly organised piece that benefits from the firm hand of a conductor prepared to "put a bit of stick about" like Kubelik does.
In the second movement there is a superb mixture of nostalgia and repose with the spiky, tart aspects of nature juxtaposing the scents and the pastels. Only Horenstein surpasses in the rhythmic pointing of the following Scherzo but Kubelik comes close as his sense of purpose seems to extend the chain of events that was begun at the very start, still pulling us on in one great procession. The pressing tempi help in this but above all there is the innate feel for the whole picture that only a master Mahlerian can pull off and frequently only in "live" performance. Marjorie Thomas is an excellent soloist and the two choirs are everything you would wish for. Though Barbirolli’s Manchester boys are just wonderful. Like Barbirolli, though warm of heart, Kubelik refuses to indulge the music of the last movement and wins out as the crowning climax is as satisfying as could be wished. This is a firm recommendation for Mahler’s Third and another gem in Audite’s Kubelik releases.
Whilst dealing with earlier interpreters on record, the name Charles Adler might be unfamiliar to many people today but he was a Mahler pioneer too who made the first recordings of the Third and Sixth Symphonies, as well as the Adagio of the Tenth, for a label he financed from his own resources. He also might have known Gustav Mahler as he’s thought to have been one of the assistants who helped train the choruses for the first performance of the Eighth in Munich in 1910. Adler’s recording of the Third was made in Vienna in 1951 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and, on first release, boasted sleeve notes by Alma Mahler herself. Remember that until 1960 this was the only recording of the Third available so it helped form the impression of this work for a generation of Mahlerites giving it a firm place in the history of Mahler recordings. It’s now available on French Harmonia Mundi (HMA 190501.02) or Tahra (Tahra 340). It is claimed that the occasional deviations from the score an experienced listener will notice came from Mahler himself. If true it adds interest to the recording over and above the considerable virtues to be found in it. There is spaciousness and weight to the first movement which, when allied to the distinctive Viennese playing style and sound still preserved in 1951, takes us back to another world. This can be heard especially well in the sound of the horns and in the aching lyricism of the contrasting sections in the introduction. The summer march then builds from very gentle beginnings to emerge in grandeur. All through Adler justifies his weightier, muscular approach by a miracle of concentration and by the response of his players who, whilst never the last word in security, have this music in their bone marrow. There is, I believe, a hint of what this work might have sounded like under Mahler himself especially in the mellow horns and in a hundred different ways in which the strings turn a phrase. Maybe the rougher mono recording helps but the contrast of toughness and lyricism is most engaging too. The close of the movement is built up to over a huge span and rises to a massive climax to seal a deeply impressive account.
The second movement stresses lyricism again with some perky woodwinds. Again the way the strings phrase their contributions is the kind of playing you really don’t hear today and might sound quite unfamiliar to younger listeners. But I believe it tells us a lot about this work we might otherwise miss. The third movement is rather held back in tempo but, as with Barbirolli and Bernstein, benefits from this in having time to allow the myriad details to make their effect, woodwinds especially. There is real atmosphere conveyed, not least in the posthorn played by its Viennese soloist "to the manner born". There is one bad edit after the second posthorn where two sessions seem to have been spliced together with two different tempi to match, but try not to let that bother you. Hilde Rössl-Majdan gives a surprisingly passionate performance of "Oh Mensch" and, rather like Bernstein’s recording, this leads to a much gentler account of the fifth movement. The last movement under Adler is then very pure and ethereal in parts. The body of strings is not as large as it might be and it’s in the last movement this shows most. However, I still want you to be aware of this recording for all that it can tell us about Mahler performing practice. The mono sound shows its age a little, but a few minutes getting used to it is all that’s needed to adjust and enjoy a fine performance with many virtues.
Whilst on the subject of Mahler pioneers you should be aware of a "live" recording by Hermann Scherchen and Leipzig radio forces from 1960. This is now available in a Tahra release (TAH 497-498 coupled with the Tenth Adagio) giving you a "live" performance by that most individual of Mahler conductors that should provide you with a fascinating alternative view well off the mainstream. Let me also at this point mention in passing another superb radio broadcast recording of this symphony that I think demands general release. It’s by Jean Martinon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and has been commercially available as part of a large and expensive commemorative box. For that reason I will not deal with it in any detail. Suffice it to say that I consider it the equal of the great classic recordings for all the reasons I have tried to set out. Surely a label could be found who would release it singly.
So far I have dealt only with recordings from before 1970. So I think I am justified in calling them recordings from a previous era of conductor and sound. They are certainly analogue, all of their conductors are now dead, but they still impress, still seem in touch with a view of this work that seems to have gone. When writing the first version of this survey I was hard pressed to then find recordings from the more recent past and in digital sound that I thought came anywhere near the achievements of the versions dealt with above. But I did have a go and I see no reason to strike any of those that I included out as they are fine achievements and still worth consideration.
Giuseppe Sinopoli with the Philharmonia Orchestra on DG (447 051) is as good a place as any to start. The sound recording is superb - bold and rich, with lots of unobtrusive atmosphere. There is also splendid playing from the start with clear and "up-front" lower string uprushes that have an extra element of impetuosity about them. The trombone solos are splendidly ripe, and note also the cracks from the bass drum here and right through which are wonderfully caught. Sinopoli is aware of every colour in Mahler’s special sound palette as he is also of the rhythms in the march whose tension he builds inexorably. When the summer arrives, Sinopoli delivers exuberance but just stops short of Bernstein in this. Note the superb trumpet playing prior to the start of the development and also in the central crisis where the marches join battle. Here Sinopoli’s structural grasp is as sure as Horenstein’s, aiding his ability to convey the struggle for good over evil that Schoenberg noticed. The closing pages are a culmination not just of the re-start of the march but of the whole movement.
Can Sinopoli maintain such a promising start? Indeed he can. Delicacy is the watchword in the second movement, especially the care shown to the inner string parts and the way the music is moulded, but not excessively so. Sinopoli can frequently be heavy-handed in Mahler but here his touch is a light one. The same applies to the third movement but this doesn’t prevent Sinopoli from bringing great swing to the heavier scored parts that emerge with life-enhancing drama. When the posthorn solo arrives, the delicacy already noticed carries us into a dream landscape, enhanced by one of the best accounts of the solo on record (John Wallace?) leading to a genuinely awesome delivery of the Nature arrival ushering in the fourth movement. Under Sinopoli and sung by Hanna Schwarz, this is suitably crepuscular which makes the bright and breezy fifth movement a real wakening to the day. I feared the last movement would be where Sinopoli’s judgement would desert him and he would spoil everything by pulling the music around too much. Not so. What he gives is a noble and warm account with climaxes that don’t overwhelm, rather that seem perfectly natural parts of the whole, as do the final pages’ timpani contributions which are never allowed to swamp the texture. Sinopoli’s Mahler Third is one that should be a leading contender for the library. Superb sound, playing and interpretation.
Jesus Lopez-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on Telarc (80481) give a lively opening that brings distinctively grainy trombone sounds like nothing else on any other version. There are also some great "kicks" from the lower strings as they burst from the depths. This is not a pretty opening, in fact it’s quite ugly. It’s one of those in the tradition that sees this music cut from the landscape with the bluntest of instruments. Lopez-Cobos then has another surprise or two in store with a dance-like quality to the lyrical passages that accompany the opening and then a somewhat agitated account of the first trombone solo with violence lurking in the background. Summer itself has an airy, open-air quality and some energy to it that’s refreshing and the very immediate recording balance helps him in what appears to be a much more radical, Wunderhorn view of this work. No attempt to smooth out the shifting moods and sounds. The March sections are superbly done, prepared for with some tension and delivered with vigour and the close has all the architectural security of Horenstein and the colour and blaze of Barbirolli. Notice too how Lopez-Cobos and his engineers make you hear all the woodwind contributions.
The second movement is fleet-footed and very precise. A refreshing account indeed which puts Lopez-Cobos in with those who lavish care and attention on this short movement. I especially like the character of the woodwind and the transparent textures, which are carried over to the third movement. Here there is a lovely rhythmic snap in the more animated passages and a post-horn solo dreamy and distant. In all, an account of this movement that covers all aspects. I also felt Lopez-Cobos had in the back of his mind the sound of the Fourth symphony in these two movements, reinforcing in my mind the impression that he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that this is a Wunderhorn period piece. Michelle de Young is a rapt and sonorous soloist in the fourth movement with Lopez-Cobos in excellent support. In the fifth movement, he shows again his ability to illuminate elements others miss. Like the string accompaniments, which seem to receive special attention and some fine playing from the Cincinnati orchestra. This adds to a fine sense of flow that carries over into the last movement making the kind of culmination that it ought to be. Lopez-Cobos is a touch more detached in his textures than others are here but not so much that it detracts from his flow. It’s a fine alternative to the more "heart-on-sleeve" conductors since Lopez-Cobos has a lighter touch that pays dividends in that the optimistic side to Mahler wins out in the end. I’ve always believed this to be Mahler’s least troubled work and it’s good to hear Lopez-Cobos appears to have reached that conclusion too. The sound recording is less sumptuous than, for example, Sinopoli. But I enjoyed its detail and musical sense and hi-fi fans should note this is encoded in Telarc’s "Surround Sound".
Simon Rattle's recording on EMI (56657) with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra followed live performances but I wish they had issued one of those. Having heard a broadcast of one I felt the presence of the audience gave the players a greater sense of unfolding drama. The sound here is rich, deep and well upholstered. Very much a concert hall balance with a wide spread left and right and good front-to-back perspective. The CBSO horns open the work with a sense of space, both physical and musical, with each note spaced out more deliberately and the horns themselves sounding less penetrating than I think they should. Overall the brass of the CBSO are more cultured and cushioned than the Hallé for Barbirolli or the LSO for Horenstein, so they offer a better blend. But there is some loss of character. The trombone solos are little too well mannered too, I think. The strings are well balanced and there appear to be enough of them for the uprushes from lower strings to really shudder from the depths. Rattle's main march is well done in terms of tempo and weight and is also very grand. But I think it misses the greater swagger of Bernstein and Barbirolli and the sense of the approach from far distance. In the passage at 530-642 where Mahler develops on the marches Rattle could have learned a lot from the example of his older colleagues. Horenstein and Bernstein never lose track of the plot where Rattle seems to have done at the start. He redeems himself in the "Ivesian" frenzy but then lets the music sag again in the long, dreamy section before the march resumes for the Recapitulation. With Rattle my attention wondered whereas with Barbirolli, Horenstein and Kubelik I remained riveted. Rattle also seems to cushion the climaxes at the end. The impression is that he might want to save something in his arsenal for later.
The second movement gets a lovely performance. Then in the third the opening woodwinds of the CBSO show great character and a more cultured and refined delivery. It's really a question of taste as to whether you prefer a more homespun sound like that for Barbirolli and Horenstein. Rattle seems anxious to luxuriate in the details of this movement where others prefer to be more extrovert. This does lead to an unforgettable delivery of the posthorn solos in the Rattle recording. The lead up is given a deliberate slowing down which in "live" performance was a piece of concert hall theatre worthy of Furtwangler and then in the recording the player impinges into our aural imagination from a huge distance. In the interlude between the two passages Rattle then coaxes his muted brass players to cluck like an expectant hen house - "What the animals tell me", indeed. Rattle is more reined-back in the passage at the end of the movement where Nature rears up and, again in comparison with others, disappoints. He seemed more concerned with the beauty of sound that can be drawn from this moment rather than its earthy, elemental ugliness. The backward depth in the sound stage means that the fourth movement starts with a considerable advantage as Birgit Remmert emerges from way back, singing with greater insight into the words and character of her part than most counterparts. The most noticeable difference with Rattle in this movement concerns his renowned zeal for bringing out every detail of the score because this leads to a controversial decision. There is an important solo for principal oboe and cor anglais and Mahler's instruction to the player is "hinaufziehen". A friend who was at one of the live performances described the sound produced by CBSO principal oboe Jonathan Kelly as "an extraordinary upward glissando". Rattle may have interpreted exactly what Mahler asks for but hearing something I'm so familiar with played in a way I'm so unfamiliar with makes me wonder if this is a detail to far. Rattle learned the effect from an off-air recording by Berthold Goldschmidt and the Philharmonia Orchestra from 1960. Rattle also adds girls to his boys choir and so there is a difference between his fifth movement and many others. There is more warmth but I feel less contrast. I prefer Barbirolli's unvarnished honesty though Rattle's orchestral accompaniment is very telling. Rattle is restrained in the last movement. He finds a degree of expression a few notches beneath Barbirolli’s and Bernstein’s and supplies more of the inner spirituality of Horenstein which the movement benefits from. He doesn't slow up too much, though. He agrees the movement should have ebb and flow, but his ebb and flow is within narrower limits than Barbirolli’s or Bernstein’s. The string players in Birmingham have more weight of tone and seem better able to deliver a true pianissimo and more levels of dynamic than their Manchester counterparts who were, perhaps, given a separate agenda. At the close Rattle is very satisfying. If you are looking for a modern version of Mahler's Third, superbly recorded and played, with a care for detail that takes you deep into the complexities of this remarkable work, Rattle is a contender though not a leading one.
Klaus Tennstedt’s version was mentioned in passing in the first version of this survey and I realise now this was a mistake and one I am pleased to correct. He always seemed to approach Mahler’s music from its past rather than its future. Under him the symphonies emerge as works by a composer standing at the culmination of a 19th century tradition of romantic symphonies rather than at the start of its disintegration in the 20th. Sonorities are often richly and grandly presented, romantic and expressive opportunities are likely to be grasped with alacrity, astringency and harshness tends to be underplayed and tempi are frequently, though not always, expansively presented. Tennstedt still has a legion of admirers for whom he can seemingly do no wrong and though I’ve never counted myself among them I have always admired his Third in spite of reservations relating to those characteristics I have outlined. (EMI 5 74296 2 coupled with the Fourth Symphony.) One of the aspects of Tennstedt’s Mahler conducting that always concerns me most is that he seemed surer of himself when the music was dark and tragic. That he often appeared unable, or unwilling, to deliver as convincingly as others did those passages when Mahler lightens his mood and tone. It seemed that Tennstedt was "marking time" in those passages until the next chunk of tragedy or drama came along. Perhaps we could say that when Tennstedt turned to Mahler there was "something of the night" about him. But if a performance of Mahler’s music is going to do it justice it must bring out every aspect in equal measure. Only then are the full implications of Mahler’s unique qualities, his world-embracing visions, likely to emerge best and most especially in movements where he changes frequently from one extreme to the other. I never really felt Tennstedt really did that. The first movement of the Third is one such movement, perhaps a paradigm, and is therefore a "graveyard" for conductors who cannot bring this aspect off. The opening paragraphs see him as a Sisyphus pushing his rock with the accent on weight and drag. Few versions are as doom-laden as this and it is certainly a memorable account of this part of the score. The problem is that when the lighter music arrives, with woodwinds chirruping and squawking in the dovecotes and strings lifting the music aloft as if those birds have flown, the mood seems to remain dark whereas it should change profoundly to signal the pattern for the rest of the movement. The great trombone solo is also surprisingly tame where it really ought to be rude and raucous. It’s as though Tennstedt wants to keep this as a creature of the dark also. Likewise in the build up to the march crisis in the development there is the sense of Tennstedt waiting for the moment when he can unleash his forces in mass attack which he does do with great effect. So I think he again misses the musical equivalent of montage film editing that gives equal attention to every passage rather than some. There are impressive things in this movement, though. The sound of the LPO horns roaring at the climax of the exposition’s march of summer, for example, and the close of the whole movement with brass and percussion sweeping all before them. But Horenstein, Barbirolli, Kubelik and Bernstein all have a better grasp of every feature of this movement.
The rest of the symphony under Tennstedt works much better, though it cannot be said too often that an account of the Third where the first movement doesn’t convince is a Third with one hand tied behind it’s back. It might well be because each of the following five movements essentially has just one mood which Tennstedt can therefore stick to. Just to prove he is capable of the light touch the second movement is warm and beautifully pointed with a carefree air. The playing and recorded balance is alive to every colour and this carries over to the third movement where a nice feeling of urgency also gets injected into the system. The two posthorn solos are superbly atmospheric and notice the violins in the passage between them and the splendid woodwind squeaks just prior to the second entry. It should go without saying Tennstedt manages the great rearing up of nature’s power at the close of the movement with awesome effect. The fourth movement finds Ortrun Wenkel a more open and expressive soloist than we are used to though I would have liked, once again, more contrast for the entry of the boys in the fifth movement. However, the real surprise and pleasure comes in the last movement where Tennstedt confounds expectations to deliver one of the best accounts I have heard. Too many conductors take the arrival of this movement as the signal to slow down, even seeming to try to outdo each other as to how slow they can take this music, some stringing it out into glacial progress. But this music is an anthem not a wake and Tennstedt keeps things moving forward so that the underlying tension is never allowed to flag and neither is the attention of the listener. I’ve heard accounts of this music where I have frankly become bored by it. By keeping his eye firmly on the closing pages and when these arrive delivering them without overheating the emotion, Tennstedt brings the work home on a really triumphant note. Not at all like Klaus Tennstedt, in fact.
These were the most outstanding of the modern versions that I included in the first version of this survey. The intervening years since have been very good to this symphony and whilst I still think Sinopoli and Lopez-Cobos in particular still deserve their leading places there are now other newer recordings that are as fine and, in three cases, even finer. The question at the top of my mind this time around in this survey is whether any of these could now challenge the old guard, give me the Holy Grail of a modern digital recording by a conductor of our own time worthy to be listed in the same breath, something I failed to find last time. I will tell you now that whilst some new recordings come very close there is one, at last, that I think does meet that formidable criteria, but more of that one later. Let me first deal with two new recordings that I think don’t quite make the grade but are included here because they are borderline and they illustrate better the virtues of the ones that do.