One of Gustav Mahler’s often repeated sayings is that in his Symphony no. 3 in D minor, he sought to encompass the whole of creation. The result, in musical terms, is that there’s an awful lot to come to grips with: dozens of motifs that are repeated, interwoven, deployed in different instrument combinations, often several happening at the same time (and not necessarily in the same rhythm). In Prom 67, on Sunday afternoon, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave a performance that was so clear and precise as to make an excellent introduction for audience members new to the work – but which fell short of the heights of intensity that experienced Mahler devotees crave.

Susan Graham, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Susan Graham, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Bostonians’ sound was of the utmost clarity, making it unusually straightforward for one to pick apart the ways in which Mahler builds his layers of sound, such as his use of a pair of woodwind instruments to create a kind of virtual instrument of its own, the timing of low percussion rolls, the way string sections are employed in a particular register in order to make space for some particular brass intervention, the different ways in which the extensive brass section is deployed – both as to which instruments are playing and to the various playing techniques, the different string effects.

But the killer punches were not landed. The tutti that rudely interrupt the measured trombone solos of the first movement were big, but not explosive. Tremolando strings were precise and clear, but short of the last word in urgency. The big orchestral passages got somewhat bigger as they were repeated as the movement progressed, but never quite blew us out of our seats. Mahler’s town band was chipper and cheerful, but not abandoned, and when the music became military, the excitement was not the heroics of battle but that of a child watching soldiers on parade. Still, here was a performance that reminded us of what a wonderful movement Mahler’s enormous edifice is, and enabled us to understand how it is put together more clearly that I have often heard.

The gentler second and third movements fared better, with some lovely string swell: the highlight of the afternoon was the nostalgic faraway complaint of the post horn, played over the softest of strings, joined by the gentlest of flute lines to fill out the harmonic space.

Mahler 3 at the Proms © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Mahler 3 at the Proms
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Our soloist for the text from Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra was Susan Graham, who sounded creamily smooth, rock steady in intonation and well matched to the orchestra. But here too, that last bit of extra intensity was missing. For the full impact, the text needs to be not just beautiful, not just strong, but to feel as if it comes from the cavern of ages, with an unlimited reservoir of extra power in the voice: to my taste, Graham’s performance was simply too refined to give that effect.

The fifth movement suffered from the choice of a youth chorus rather than a children’s chorus. The CBSO women’s chorus and their youth chorus sang their parts well, matching the orchestra note for note as regards precision. But you simply didn’t get the crystalline ringing of children’s voices in the “Bimm, Bamm”s, or the vivid contrast with the adult choir when they start singing together.

Mahler had many views of divinty and heaven. In contrast to the quirky children’s view in the Fourth Symphony, the final movement of the Third, was viewed by the composer as “What God tells me” or “What love tells me”. In Nelsons and the BSO’s reading, what God wishes on us is a state of eternal soothing loveliness, the aching beauty of the strings sending me into a kind of benevolent languor. I’m probably too much of a restless soul, because I did find that it dragged, but I can’t deny the richness of the musical balm.

The final passage of the Third is always a theatrical one, with its pounding alternate notes from a pair of timpanists (which are noticeably similar to those of Mahler’s friend Richard Strauss in his Also Sprach Zarathustra, both works stemming from Nietzsche's opus and both completed in the same year, 1896). Did they confer? Either way, it enabled the BSO to bring things to a vigorous conclusion.

***11