Arguably the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, Mahler’s Third is a prodigious achievement, and one that can be considerably challenging to pull off successfully. Two seasons after performing Mahler’s Second at Carnegie Hall, Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic returned to perform this mammoth work.

Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic © Steve J Sherman
Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic
© Steve J Sherman

The very first bars of the piece, consisting of horns proclaiming a declamatory theme in D minor, were played at least one dynamic below their written fortissimo, creating a muffled and shaky introduction. The ensuing murmurs in the brass and woodwinds were appropriately soft, but the effect of contrast was diminished by the lackluster rendition of the introductory theme. As the movement progressed, Mehta guided the orchestra in and out of sharply contrasting sections, from fierce military marches to delicately soft dialogues, but without an agreed articulation across the orchestra, many of the idiomatic effects were lost. The multiple trombone solos in the movement were performed skillfully by principal trombonist Nir Erez, but the trumpets’ ascending semiquaver triplet lines were rushed and sometimes even botched, with an inner note or two being skipped altogether. The orchestra finally came to play fortississimo in the development section, but even here Mahler’s instructions of aufgehobenen Schalltrichter (“bells up”) for the horns were ignored. The rousing final bars of the movement, while played without any technical mistakes, were far from the desired Sehr drängend “very much pressing forward” and mit höchster Kraft (“with greatest power”).

The second movement (originally subtitled “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”) is considerably more serene than the first, and Mehta performed it as such. The opening oboe solo was appropriately delicate as was the contrapuntal playing in the second theme, but a lack of clear agreement on dynamics and articulation prevented it from being truly memorable.

Although Mahler removed the subtitles from the six movements of the symphony, the music retains many explicitly programmatic elements, as can be heard clearly in the third movement, originally subtitled “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”. Much of the music is borrowed from Mahler’s song Ablösung im Sommer (The Changing of the Summer Guard), and the clarinet’s abrasive triplet lines are taken straight from the song, where they are set to the words “Kukuk ist todt!” (Cuckoo is dead!). As such, the proper syllabic stressing of this motif is very important, and it was handled excellently by the clarinets. Impressive individual moments of exquisite chamber-style playing abounded in this movement, including the posthorn solo, but the blend became muddled all too often in the tutti sections, tempering the brilliant virtuosity of the individual musicians.

Mihoko Fujimara’s impassioned singing of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s Rundgesang was the highlight of this movement, and perhaps of the entire symphony. Her clear, articulate, diction, carefully controlled vibrato, and meticulous attention to detail was nothing short of awe-inspiring. The fifth movement saw the introduction of the two choirs, singing cheerfully alongside Fujimara about the redemption of sin. The orchestra receded into the background here as Mehta focused his attention on the choirs, crafting a well-shaped musical line and a compelling performance of the movement.

The sixth and final movement (originally subtitled “What Love Tells Me”) is an extended set of variations on a D major chorale, replete with masterful contrapuntal writing and orchestration. Executing this movement successfully requires sharp control of dynamics, articulation, and timbre, all of which had been suffering in various measures throughout the preceding movements. Individual sections of the orchestra shone as their lines emerged and receded from the texture, but the cohesion of the movement as a whole was somewhat lacking. The closing peroration with the double timpani was initially promising but rendered bathetic by a feeble cymbal crash. The orchestra regained unity for the final few bars, but the sense of arrival was thwarted by the numerous shortcomings preceding the ending.

Given Mehta’s decades-long history with the symphony, this evening’s disappointing performance could be ascribed to several factors. In a work as complex and multifaceted as Mahler’s Third, plumbing the depths of the music is not a trivial task, and indeed it was not achieved fully in this performance.