Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Album Review - Mahler: Symphony No. 3

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has a great Mahler tradition and an especially fine track record with the Symphony No. 3. There’s Bernard Haitink’s 1966 recording for Philips and Riccardo Chailly’s 2003 album for Decca, both are benchmark readings. The RCO’s newest recording features conductor Mariss Jansons, mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, the Netherlands Radio Choir, the Boys of the Breda Sacrament Choir and Rijnmond Boys’ Choir in a live version (taken from February 2010 concerts) of the gargantuan symphony.

Mahler pulls out all the stops with delirious episodes of ecstatic gaiety, wild violence and piercing agony in the nearly 35 minute opening movement. It’s one of the most colorful, over-the-top passages in Mahler and perhaps in all symphonic music. Jansons and the RCO play it within an inch of its life. Snarling brass, screaming winds, sawing strings all come off splendidly and yet, for all the savagery, this is a highly musical and polished performance with the RCO in glorious form.

When things settle onto calmer terrain, the performance is just as mesmerising. The minuet that makes up the second movement shifts from the sentimental to menacing and Jansons never glosses over these jarring mood swings, every note counts in Mahler and the conductor gives the listener full value. The third movement contains the famous posthorn solo and that remarkable special effect comes off beautifully. In the fourth movement, Bernarda Fink’s “O Mensch! Gib Acht!” (O Man! Take Heed!) solo is light in tone with thick vibrato (to compensate for the light tone?), but it’s deeply felt and extremely moving. The choral passages in the fifth movement are well sung, but I wish the boy’s choir sung with a bit more exuberance (you are joyous angels guys, you should float!). The closing Adagio is breathtaking. Jansons paces things ideally and the sheer beauty of the RCO’s playing, especially at the climaxes where brass ring out, is otherworldly.

You would be hard-pressed to guess this was a live recording. There’s no audience noise (except for rousing applause at the conclusion) and the overall sound quality is so detailed and so warm that you would swear it was made in a recording studio. This recording now completes the brilliant trinity of RCO Mahler thirds and is a strong competitor to excellent recordings by Bernstein, Gielen and Mitropoulos.

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