The Cleveland Orchestra opened its 2012/13 Severance Hall season this weekend with an epic performance of Gustav Mahler’s sprawling Symphony no. 3. The orchestra’s Musical Director Franz Welser-Möst conducted, and the Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Zoryana Kushpler made her American debut with these concerts on 20 and 22 September.

Mahler’s inspiration for Symphony no. 3 was the Austrian Alpine scenery that he viewed during the composition from 1895 to 1896. Indeed the symphony is filled with references to nature: bits of bird songs, invented folk song, and musical climaxes befitting Technicolor film grandeur. With his Third Symphony, Mahler pushed the boundaries of the symphonic form to its limit in a work of six movements grouped into two parts. Part 1 consists of only the first movement and is almost as long as the remaining five movements combined. This performance lasted approximately 100 minutes and was performed without intermission. Despite the great length, Mahler’s forms are still identifiable as those of Mozart and Beethoven, and his razor-sharp orchestrations are an excellent match for the pristine clarity of the Cleveland Orchestra sound. Despite the huge size of the orchestra that Mahler specifies, in many portions of the symphony it is treated as a chamber ensemble with great delicacy. Time and again Mr. Welser-Möst illuminated inner voices, so that the overall musical architecture of the work was apparent.

The first movement is in sonata form. After an introduction by the unison horn section, the main musical material is based on two marches, the first funereal, and the second more jaunty. The musical themes are developed at great length, with numerous solo opportunities for the Cleveland Orchestra principal players. Most notable were the magnificent trombone solos by Massimo La Rosa and the violin solos played by concertmaster William Preucil. The horns return with their opening material in exactly the place where one would expect the recapitulation of the sonata form to begin. Both sets of musical material are further developed, but the “happy” march ultimately wins, in a blaze of brilliance.

While the first movement is in a modified sonata form, Mahler plays with the usual order of musical forms for the rest of the symphony. Following a long pause, Part 2 begins with a delicate minuet that at times almost becomes a scherzo. The third movement, marked “Scherzando, without haste”, is a set of elaborate variations on a folk-like melody. The heart of the movement is a long off-stage solo for valved posthorn, played here by principal trumpet Michael Sachs. The solo evokes the ranz de caches played by Alpine cowherds as they drive their cattle to and from pasture. The movement gathers steam, is interrupted briefly by a moment of Mahlerian suspended animation, and ends in trilling brilliance.

As with much of Mahler’s music, this symphony has many self-referential moments, either to music that has come before in his earlier works, or that will be more fully developed in later symphonies. The fourth and fifth movements contain several such references. The fourth movement, a setting for solo mezzo-soprano of an excerpt from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, reminiscent of the Urlicht movement in Mahler’s Second Symphony, has similarly dark orchestral colors, filled with silences. The audience was held in rapt attention by the velvet sheen of the low strings, horns, and shimmering upper parts. Zoryana Kushpler sang with gorgeous opulence but mushy diction.

The quiet fourth movement moved without pause into the sunny territory of the fifth, a setting for solo mezzo, children’s chorus and women’s chorus of a poem about angels from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the collection of poetry that Mahler returned to repeatedly in his career. In this movement – seemingly one of the few guilelessly happy moments in the symphony – Mahler created phrases that he would re-use wholesale in the last movement of his Symphony no. 4, another Des Knaben Wunderhorn setting. The Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus was well prepared and sang with fresh tone and enthusiasm, as did the women of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. Ms. Kushpler again sang with lush tone and gracefulness.

Mr. Welser-Möst did not pause between the fifth and concluding sixth movement, an immense Adagio. The singers remained standing through the first portion of the finale, only sitting at the first entrance of the brass, several minutes into the movement. Although one could understand the musical reason not to interrupt the flow between the fifth and sixth movements, this chorus seating seemed like a miscalculation, and a visual as well as audible distraction to the music being played. In this scenario, a listener might have (unreasonably) wished for the chorus to continue standing through the entire movement. We have hints in this movement of the adagios that will later flow from Mahler’s pen, those of the fifth and ninth symphonies. The tension in the long lines of music is developed to a thrilling ending, that despite being fortissimo retains a sense of repose. Mr. Welser-Möst gave the final cut-off of the orchestra with his right hand while holding his left hand in place. Thus he held the audience’s attention in silence for several seconds before the applause. It was a magical ending to a splendid performance of Mahler’s monumental symphony.