There is an obvious limit to the length of a symphony. Both the promoter at the venue and the audience have a not unreasonable expectation that the music will be over and done with before the witching hour. What a challenge then if you are aware of such constraints but still wish to aim at an all-embracing musical cosmology. Before Mahler set out on his idea of a tiered arrangement of creation (the worlds of minerals, plants, animals, humans and angels), Wagner in a thrilling roll of the dice had already successfully encompassed the world of the gods and the world of mere mortals in his Ring cycle, scaling the most elevated heights and plumbing the most subterranean depths.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee

Where Wagner needed four evenings, Mahler manages in his gargantuan Third Symphony with not quite two hours. A first-class performance will produce a satisfying afterglow of wonderment and linger long in the memory. Both for his opening concert in 2009 as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic and for his first appearance with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester since his appointment as its new principal conductor was announced (effective from September 2019), Alan Gilbert chose to perform Mahler’s longest work.

It remains to be seen whether Gilbert, who spent over a decade as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, can return it to the glory days it had under Günter Wand. His personality was most evident in the strong rhythmic accentuation displayed by the strings, but then there were also moments when the orchestra as a whole seemed not to be pulling together, with each section wrapped in its own little cocoon. Those sparks of creative energy which come from the conductor’s gestures – and some of Gilbert’s were quite extravagant – did not always translate visibly and audibly into obvious results.

For all its apparent unorthodox structure, Mahler’s third is steeped in tradition. What the eight unison horns play at the very start has a remarkable similarity to the hymn-like chorale in the finale of Brahms’ C minor symphony, and the great melody with which the sixth and final movement is set on its way is a direct crib from the third movement of Beethoven’s last string quartet. But who cares? As Stravinsky once remarked, “great composers steal”. Moments of hard-edged brilliance rarely dominate the sound-world in this work, and Gilbert secured plenty of lyrical warmth in the first movement, maintaining a steady flow both here and later. Occasionally, though, the overall tight control and careful balancing of the different textures denied the piece its raw energy. Nothing was allowed to spill out or over; pieces of inert matter were chiselled away from the rock-face rather than having boulders flung down the hillside.

The composer himself claimed that the second movement minuet was “the most carefree thing I have ever written”. It needs a delicate touch with an easy rubato in order to retain its wide-eyed innocence. This was largely realised by orchestra and conductor, even if in the slightly sterile acoustic there was little in the way of tonal opulence. However, in the following Scherzando’s passages where the soft strings play on their own this carried beautifully in the hall, creating a shimmering quality like that of an aural heat haze. Though Martin Angerer’s posthorn was arguably the finest instrumental solo of the evening, the atmospheric effect that Mahler wanted – he stipulates that the sound must come “from a great distance” – was not achieved. Positioned on one of the highest levels in an auditorium that seems to over-inflate any solo instrument, this particular posthorn was far too prominent. A pity too that Gilbert missed the sardonic humour, those little touches of acerbity that introduce a bittersweet element, like “the sticking out of one’s tongue” (Mahler’s own phrase) when the brass need to spit out their notes in mock defiance.

The fourth movement benefited from the chocolate-and-velvet tones of Gerhild Romberger whose clear articulation and colouring of the words (“Weh” was especially intense) were sensitively matched by Gilbert. Mahler’s instruction to the oboist (the “hinaufziehen”) is always subject to varying interpretation: here it was possible to visualise the cries of a peacock in a large country park.

And so to the great finale. Gilbert started softly and slowly, with a beautiful luminance from the lower strings. It is in such writing that this hall reveals its strengths: ethereal string sounds that are “heavenly” in the true sense of the word, like feathers rising inextricably on hot-air thermals and gathering to form cushions of down for the final apotheosis. There are not many musical works that can bring you to a state of nirvana. Mahler’s Third Symphony is one of them.