When Mahler wrote his Third Symphony, you couldn’t accuse him of lack of ambition. As well as making his usual demands for vast orchestral forces, Mahler intended to encapsulate the whole of creation within a single musical work. The result is a six-movement work that is gigantic in scale, especially the first movement, which takes over 40 minutes on its own.

Semyon Bychkov  ©  Rob Brimson
Semyon Bychkov
© Rob Brimson

Assuming that you’re not a trained analyst of orchestral music sitting with the score in front of you, it seems to me that there are two ways of listening to a work of such a scale. The first is the cerebral one: you can learn about the piece, learn about Mahler’s programme (the first movement is called “Pan awakens”, the second “What the flowers told me” and so on), learn about things that influenced him (the military bands of his childhood, the Viennese dance tunes of his day, etc), and listen out for the way all these things come into the music.

The second is totally different: let the music wash over you and enter your consciousness directly, without the need for your intellect to get involved. In last night’s performance at the Barbican, by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov, this is what I found myself doing. This symphony packs such extraordinary power in so many different moods that I respond to it deeply and viscerally.

Taking this approach doesn’t help the process of describing it, but I will try to pick out a few highlights. The opening movement is peppered with massive brass fanfares, augmented by a large contingent of percussion: most prominently, two timpanists and a bass drum player. The LSO’s percussion section were particularly on song: the bass drum hits you like a rifle shot as the braying trombones give way to wails of woodwind and muted trumpet. In the third movement, a long solo is given to an off-stage flugelhorn, which gave a distant echo of pure nostalgia. I don’t know if this feeling is precisely what Mahler intended, but that solo gave me an intense yearning for imagined gentle days of yesteryear. I am certain, on the other hand, of the intent behind the fourth movement: the coming of light out of the depths of grief – because it’s in Nietzsche’s words, sung beautifully by Christiane Stotijn. This melts into the brightest and most joyful of choral movements, to give way in turn to a calming string intermezzo.

Bychkov’s conducting style is fascinating to watch. He works with extreme precision and economy of movement, using a long baton which is moved rapidly and crisply, aimed at whichever section of the orchestra is important to him at that particular moment. Movements of the other hand and a shake of curly hair provide instructions and timing for the others. I was highly impressed with the results: every section of the LSO sounded perfectly balanced and played with gorgeous timbre.

More importantly, it was a lucid rendering. Mahler’s music has so much going on at the same time that the ear often struggles to take it all in: there’s usually something that doesn’t quite fit. Under Bychkov, I felt that every note from every instrument was in its proper place – even the notes from the lowly tambourine seemed to be played at satisfyingly correct moments.

Over the years, Mahler’s Third has received two major criticisms: firstly, that it’s not really a symphony, and secondly that the scale of the first movement unbalances the whole thing. Both criticisms, it seems to me, are correct in a literal sense while totally missing the point. It’s perfectly true that the construction and soundscape of this work are totally different from any symphony that went before it. But that’s the whole point of the work: if you want to call it a giant suite of tone poems instead of a symphony, that’s fine by me. And the first movement is so emotionally draining that I can’t imagine being able to cope with something else of that scale. The way I hear the work, Mahler starts by building a canvas in the first movement, and then adds splashes of myriad different colours with each of the succeeding five. What matters most is that looking around the concert hall, you could see many audience members in a state of pure, intoxicated bliss.

The performance wasn’t note-perfect – there were some occasional missed entries, including a terrible trombone fluff towards the end – but it was as good as I’m likely to hear in many a year. In a hall with great acoustics, a great conductor and a great orchestra were playing one of the most extraordinary pieces in the repertoire. It was an orchestral experience not to be forgotten.

London Symphony OrchestraDavid Karlin reviews Semyon Bychkov conducting the LSO in Mahler's Symphony no. 3 at the Barbican, London.5