If there would be one piece to show someone asking “who is Mahler?” the third symphony would undoubtedly be my first choice. Though it does not perhaps reach the heights of expressionism of some of his later symphonies, it perfectly exemplifies everything Mahler’s music is about: contrast between emotional extremes, ingenuitive orchestration, and a juxtaposition of the sublime and trivial. What perhaps identifies this piece apart from Mahler’s other symphonies its incredible drama. For a start, it is comprised of two parts, the second of which is divided into five smaller movements, giving it a feeling more like that of an opera with two acts and 6 scenes than a traditional symphony. Musical ideas seem to interrupt each other; wither and die rather than develop; burst forth out of nothing, giving the piece a real sense of a story but one that can be applied universally to one’s own experiences: something that only music can achieve.

This performance by the BBC Scottish Orchestra gave me more goose bumps more times than a musical performance ever has. Rarely have I seen a professional orchestra more involved in the music, working incredibly hard to convey existentialist messages embedded in the music. I particularly enjoyed the gay abandon with which they approached the deliberately trivial or banal moments of the piece; a wonderfully shameless spirit that seemed to conjure images of Mahler sticking a very musical two fingers up to the critics of his second symphony and his attempts to make his symphonies ‘like the world’. Many times I found myself smiling, almost chuckling at these quasi-ironic features to then be confronted once more with the expressionistic reality of the music; a contrast that makes both elements all the more lucid and powerful, as if to say “you really shouldn’t be laughing at this”. Well captured was also the contrast between the constant –dare I say, daily– terrestrial turmoil, and the metaphysical, timeless, ethereal qualities created by interjections from offstage trumpet solos, evoking a sacred break from worldly troubles, particularly in the third movement.

The music on the whole seems to be quite pessimistic, as suggested by the evocation of a corrupted utopia (inspired by the solitude of nature) at the beginning of Part Two, yet there is always a great sense of hope captured in the music. Perhaps this is what makes it so powerful and reflective of human struggle. The last movement initially evokes an acceptance of a cursed fate, all struggle seemingly absent, but then the yearning returns in emotional fashion to forge towards a triumphant yet anxious ending: anxious because Mahler doesn’t want it to end.

The fact that I could write for hours on what this performance meant to me I believe indicates what a good job conductor Donald Runnicles, the orchestra, and all the other performers did to bring this incredible music to life.

Simon Birch
4th August 2010