Compared with the UK and elsewhere, it is common in Germany for opera house orchestras to escape the confines of their theatre pits with healthy regularity. Indeed, the opera orchestra often is the city orchestra. The Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg (Hamburg State Philharmonic) gives around 30 concerts a season, in addition to some 200 performances of opera and ballet at the Hamburg State Opera. Kent Nagano has been its music director since 2015, and in that time has enhanced its concert-giving profile. For a special concert as part of the Hamburg International Music Festival, they decamped from the opera house to the city's Elbphilharmonie for two performances of Mahler's massive Third Symphony, not exactly a night off sandwiched between evenings playing Wagner's Tannhäuser, and it showed, perhaps, in some slightly ragged edges to the playing in places.

Kent Nagano and the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg
© Hannes Rathjen

Mahler, it must be remembered, had a strong association with Hamburg, having been effectively in charge of this very orchestra and opera company in the six years preceding his appointment to the Vienna Court Opera in 1897 (in his study of the composer, Peter Franklin reports that as a conductor in Hamburg Mahler “inspired hatred and respect in equal measure”). Although largely penned during his Austrian summer holidays, the Third Symphony was indeed a product of this very same period, though it wasn't premiered until 1902, in Krefeld.

Nagano's approach to the work was one of cohesion rather than excess. Both outer movements were effectively a slow burn to a powerful climax. The first movement alone is almost a symphony in itself, such is its range of music and mood, but one sensed the idea of the natural world waking up, “summer marching in”, as Mahler hinted in his discarded programme for the work. There was plenty of colour to the subsequent “meadow flowers” and “woodland animals” movements, with a particularly evocative offstage posthorn solo (the player sadly uncredited in the programme). 

Gerhild Romberger's sonorous alto made a powerful impact with her “O Mensch!” finally bringing the human element into Mahler's scheme in words from Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra, while the truly bell-like “bimms” and “bamms” of the Hamburg Boys Choir ideally supported the “angels” of the women's voices of the Latvian State Choir – a classy extravagance as guests for all of five minutes in the spotlight. Finally, Nagano shaped Mahler's concluding hymn to love with barely a hint of sentimentality, though there was something about the Elbphilharmonie acoustic that gave solidity to the full orchestral sound at the end but little in the way of resonance, which for me at least robbed the climax of its usual overwhelming impact.