No work is more emblematic of Mahler's symphonic philosophy than the Third. Or at least that version of his philosophy filtered by Sibelius, who recollected Mahler's words decades after their meeting in 1907, long after his colleague's death: 'The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything'. But it was another Mahlerian statement that Gustavo Dudamel's interpretation with the Los Angeles Philharmonic brought to mind – a statement reported by his confidante Natalie Bauer-Lechner referring specifically to the Third Symphony when it was still a work in progress: 'To me, “symphony” means constructing a world with all the technical means at one's disposal'.
Dudamel inspired a masterfully organised and beautifully polished execution of the work from the LA Phil. Although the conductor has devoted a great deal of attention to his namesake since taking over as the orchestra's music director – in 2012, he presided over a complete Mahler cycle spanning just five weeks, featuring the LA Phil and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in alternation – these concerts mark his first time leading the former through the epic labyrinth that is the Third.
And the results were impressive – above all for the gorgeous, bright clarity of the soundscape Dudamel produced, which the Disney Hall acoustics enhanced. It was revelatory to be able to distinguish every stroke of the tam-tam and bass drum, so often buried amid the muffled gloom of the vast first movement's preludial section.
Dudamel showed little interest in that gloom, in the ambiguity and at times even tragic underpinnings of this music of a cosmos coming-into-being. Rather, he gave precedence to Mahler's buoyant gestures of spring awakening as the life force wrests itself free from primal chaos. When the first movement's rollicking march got going, it quickly brushed aside memories of the funereal funk in those opening minutes evaporated.
This paid welcome dividends in terms of a more coherent, organically interconnected view of a score sprawling and crawling with ideas. Dudamel brought out the pristine, childlike joy of discovery that underlies the first three movements as a whole, anticipating the explicit voicing of this in the fifth movement by the combined choirs of women and children. The erstwhile Wunderkind conductor showed intuitive sympathy with Mahler's Wunderhorn sensibility.
The second and third movements unfolded with unusually and lovingly detailed colours, Dudamel commanding multiple camera angles and levels of focus on Mahler's variegated textures. It was indeed hard not to think of cinematic analogies as the conductor kept attention riveted on the delightful surprise of each soloist's entry.
Here, again, was a sense of technical expertise in knowing just how to blend the sonority of flute and oboe, to accentuate the soprano clarinet's wide-eyed entry, or to add an infinitesimal extra degree of weight to the strings' background shimmer for the posthorn solos (executed here by cornet). Dudamel maintained a Steven Spielberg-like control over every detail.
The weak spot, to this taste, came in the fourth movement, where the human voice first emerges – Nietzsche's text sung here by Tamara Mumford with beautiful tone though with too little sense of mystery. Dudamel skirted the darkness of this most nocturnal episode in the Third, barely evoking the profound, metaphysical yearning Mahler expresses in this pivotal transitional point of the Third. With the outburst of heavenly voices that follows, the contradictions were simply brushed aside. It was a bit as if Mahler had set, back to back, a text by Christopher Hitchens and a sermon of Mother Theresa.
The concluding Adagio, on the other hand, radiated that sense of security, of a global view of the work, that elsewhere characterised Dudamel's approach. He understood how essential it is here to calibrate Mahler's carefully planned sequence of climaxes and crises, avoiding the temptation to settle for a generically blissed-out music of the spheres (and thus a music utterly lacking in tension).
Dudamel's Third lies at a fascinating point on the interpretive spectrum, far from the wrenching extremes of a Bernstein but just as distant from the magisterial detachment of a Boulez. The conductor is always thoroughly invested and emotionally focused, yet there's never a hint of the music going off the rails – even in the wildest, most orgiastic moments of the first movement. And his sensitivity to the score's resplendent detail was admirably abetted by the LA Philharmonic's inspired musicianship.
Their arrival at the amens of D major with which Mahler ends the Third had an orgasmic inevitability. And yet it contained an element of surprise in the ecstatic, swelling length of the final fermata Dudamel drew from the players.
In a few weeks they will take the Mahler on tour to Europe, along with a program including Messiaen's Des Canyons aux étoiles (with accompanying visuals of American landscapes designed by photographer Deborah O’Grady). It will be particularly fascinating to follow their reception at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, where Mahler himself conducted the Third in 1903.
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