The Royal Academy of Music turns two hundred this year, reason enough for celebration, and what more celebratory work than Mahler's Third Symphony, played by the Academy’s Symphony Orchestra, directed by their Klemperer Chair of Conducting, Semyon Bychkov. The piece illustrates Mahler’s dictum that a symphony “must be like the world, it must embrace everything”. It fills both the evening and the concert platform, and throws a spotlight on both individual and corporate musical skill.

Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
© Frances Marshall

In a pre-concert reception the Principal of the RAM, Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, explained with some wonderment that Bychkov had schooled the players for eight days (six hours a day) for this occasion. An occasion is what it proved, for this was a remarkable Mahler Three. It launched with high confidence – “Summer marches in” was Mahler’s provisional title for his 35-minute first movement, and the eight horns sounded a magnificent call-to-arms. The movement’s subsequent primeval rumblings suggested a world being formed, Mahler’s first attempt at a song of the earth. Front desks have nowhere to hide – the first players of this music complained that the scores took them to the technical limits of their instruments. The contributions of Annemarie Federle’s horn, James Nash’s trumpet, Isobel Daw’s trombone and Maria Ferreira Gomes’s clarinet, relished Mahler’s characteristic writing for them. This immense opening movement was superbly managed by Bychkov and his players. Few of us had heard this orchestra before, but there seemed little need to make allowances for youth and inexperience.

The second movement was played with much charm, not least in its opening on Eleanor Sullivan’s plangent oboe. The third movement’s taxing extended off-stage posthorn solo was impressively played by Holly Clark. Near the end the glowing horn support for Clark’s nostalgic posthorn envoi was a touchingly tender moment. This was exactly how that moment should sound for its magical effect to work.

Stephanie Wake-Edwards, Semyon Bychkov and the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra
© Frances Marshall

The work enters its second part with no break between the last three movements, beginning with the Midnight Song from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra – “Oh man, take heed”. Mahler designated a contralto, but mezzo-soprano Stephanie Wake-Edwards had no problem with the lower notes in her part and sang this quiet, slow yet portentous song beautifully, with eloquent support from first violin Iona McDonald’s solo. In the fifth movement the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and the upper voices of the Royal Academy Choir were delightfully buoyant in the composer’s Wunderhorn manner.

The finale is one of the great tests for Mahler conductors; a slow movement growing in intensity over twenty minutes towards a series of loud climaxes. Sustaining concentration, even though everyone has been playing for so long, is essential. If that dips, the audience mentally consults train timetables. Perhaps it helped that the trains were on strike, but the RAM orchestra rose to the challenge, and Bychkov commanded our attention through every paragraph towards the final blazing apotheosis.

No traversal of this perilous hundred-minute journey is ever unblemished, and maybe one or two moments, no more, could have had more confidence and character. But overall this was as satisfying a Mahler Three as we would expect even from the resident orchestras in this hall, a tribute to the great institution that brought the musicians together and prepared them so well. Mahler would have loved the dedication these young musicians brought to his score. Schoenberg complained that Mahler only ever served beer with dinner, but surely he would have raised a glass of something sparkling and toasted the Royal Academy; “Here’s to the next two hundred years!”

This review was edited to correct the name of the leader, who was mistakenly identified as Muriel Oberhofer. Apologies to Iona McDonald.