Thursday, 5 August 2010

Mahler 3rd Runnicles Prom 24

For my review of Mahler 7 Metzmacher please look HERE. For Mahler 9, Haitink in 2009 please see HERE.To be honest, I did not know what to make of Donald Runnicles's Mahler Third Symphony, Prom 24. Obviously it wouldn't be fair to compare it with the brilliant Abbado Mahler 3 at the Proms in 2007 (or his even better performance at Lucerne earlier that year).  Runnicles has been appearing at the Proms for years (I liked his Gurrelieder in 2002). Now he's taken over from Ilan Volkov as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, he's getting a massive publicity build-up. It is good for the US market, where he is well-known.

No Mahler Symphony no 3 can ever really disappoint, because it's glorious music. Even Gergiev's Mahler 3 was one of his finer moments, because he responded to the "inner demon" in this symphony. This may be the sunniest and happiest of all Mahler's symphonies, but there's a kick in it that's more Puck than Flower Fairies.

The first movement is capably set out. Runnicles goes for a sense of vastness, big open spaces. It's impressive, but as with all Mahler. struggle is of the essence. At the BBC Proms in 2005, Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in a quite remarkable Mahler 3 where the first movement actually felt like climbing mountains.  Mahler was a hill walker, he knew that peaks aren't reached without struggle. This music moves like a series of peaks and plateaux, each summit revealing further challenges.

Mahler would have reached Steinbach-am-Attersee, on whose shores the symphony was written, through an arduous climb over a mountain pass. The hushed rumbling rolls of percussion evoked a sense of dark depths, struggling ever upwards. “Pan sleeps”, he wrote, "but gradually gleaming flashes of brass grow ever more insistent, as if something is stirring." Mahler wanted the effect of  “a military band on parade, with such a mob (of onlookers) milling about”. There are several other marches here, a funeral, the procession of Dionysius and his drunken followers, and the journey through mountain peaks, and the onward rush of summer - and time -  itself. Runnicles's vision is more magisterial, classically elegant, rather than dangerous.

In his original plans for the symphony, Mahler used the term “Pan awakes!”. As Donald Mitchell says, Mahler discarded his titles like a builder discards scaffolding when a building is complete: but ignore the original intention at your peril. Pan represents a disorder, a powerful life force that convention cannot withstand. He drives away winter, and all it symbolizes. So a sense of Pandemonium wouldn't be out of order.  Listen to Jascha Horenstein for the dark heart of this symphony. Sometimes, just the manic whips of brass suffice to whip the music along. Here, though, they were more integrated into a more even-toned pace.

Runnicles's final movement impressed me more on relistening. He brings out its measured repose well, and Karen Cargill's dark timbre gave O Mensch  depth.  Vibrato, properly used, isn't a crime, and was valid in Mahler's time. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus sang nice bimm-bamms, but children's choruses usually sound better when the kids are allowed more freedom. To riot, perhaps, as Pan might have liked. But with that resounding finale, all that is passed is wiped away in a blaze of light and colour. Good beginning, good ending, but it would have been good to get a better sense of the journey.

Please read about Esa-Pekka Salonen's Mahler 3 in June 2007, which marked the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall. Given the occasion, its brightness was appropriate, for this symphony celebrates "newness" - the coming of summer, invigorated freedom and creativity. Runnicles' Mahler 3 can perhaps be heard in that light, too, though it was more sedate. The BBCSSO and the Philharmonia Orchestra are very different, as is the Royal Albert Hall. .PLENTY of Mahler on this site, please use the labels and keep reading.

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