It all begins with a simple ascending fourth (A-D) in the horns. From there we embark on the epic journey that is Mahler’s Symphony no. 3, one of the grandest pieces in the entire symphonic repertoire. There aren’t many single works that can fill an entire full-length concert, but this emphatically is one of them. Without an interval, the performance of this six-movement behemoth under the direction of Alan Gilbert lasted over 100 minutes. And while last night’s rendition didn’t entirely dispel the occasional longueurs in the listening experience, there were many fine things to admire in the playing of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a group Mahler himself conducted in the 1880s.

Alan Gilbert and the Leipzig Gewandhaus © Christian Fanghänel
Alan Gilbert and the Leipzig Gewandhaus
© Christian Fanghänel

Given the task the composer set himself of reflecting the entire world in this symphony, it was always going to be an extended affair – in fact, at one point, he envisaged a seventh movement which eventually became the finale of the Fourth Symphony. Mahler’s maximalist ambitions were also visible in the forces used: the stage at the Philharmonie was crowded to capacity, with two choirs supplementing the huge complement of orchestral instruments. It was quickly clear that the musicians were up for the challenge: the gigantic first movement was performed with commitment, from the passionate cello and double-bass scales to the tutti gusto of the second theme. Equally, they were able to hold back when needed. In my seat close to the front, the quiet bass drum moments had an eerie physical immediacy – I could feel my tympanum vibrating almost as much as I could hear any sound. The trombone solos were particularly fine, with a welcome warming of the tone.

My impression of the orchestra as a whole was of a well-oiled machine which may not have had the most outstanding players, but which made up for this in verve and cohesion. The concertmaster’s constant gyrations were a minor irritant; as a mannerism, they would hardly bear mentioning save that they led to minor fluctuations in his sound during his solos. Gilbert was a demonstrative figure on the podium, but somehow tended not to draw my eye. Conducting without a score, his utter familiarity with the work was demonstrated by his precision cuing of his musicians.

The second movement is a gentle minuet with quicker inserts. Gilbert took the main portions rather more quickly than some, which meant that he was able to keep the pulse steady when things became busier with the entry of the flute and viola theme. The third movement, always my least favourite part, was no more convincing this time than usual, although the musicians gave it their all. The well-played posthorn solo was, as usual, balm amidst the frenetic activity, and there were no problems in co-ordinating the off-stage soloist with the strings. In places, however, the tuning in the winds and brass had grown just a little sour.

One of the most thrilling moments in the entire performance was the entry of Gerhild Romberger when she intoned the first line of Nietzsche’s Mitternachtslied (Midnight song): “O mensch”. (As a musicological side-note, Nietzsche/Mahler must surely have channelled Wagner’s Erda here, another contralto figure who is also woken out of sleep to prophesy). Romberger had a creamy tone as well as utter clarity of diction, making this a fourth movement to remember. The still atmosphere was rudely broken by the entry of the choirs in the fifth movement: both the children (singing their part by heart) and women from the Leipzig opera Gewandhaus choruses were accurate and characterful, making me wish this movement had lasted longer.

But unquestionably the crowning glory of the symphony is the finale, which opens with the same ascending fourth as the first movement, tying things together cyclically. In Mahler’s programmatic conception, this marks the culmination of a teleological process starting with “What the flowers in the meadow tell me” in the second movement, progressing movement by movement through animals, man and angels, to ‘What love tells me’ (the composer later explained that love and God were synonyms here). It is the first of Mahler’s great string-dominated, slow-tempo movements (later instances include the Adagietto from Symphony no. 5, and the finale of Symphony no. 9), a glorious affirmation of romantic harmony. Gilbert didn’t (dare?) take it at the nearly-but-not-quite stalling speed that Bernstein did in his recording with the New York Philharmonic: aside from a very long up-beat, it moved at a comfortable pace. Only occasionally did the tone have the fervent glow one might have hoped for; mostly it sounded a little matt, although the musicians (some of whom had shown signs of tiring, and no wonder) roused themselves for the last few climactic efforts. So in sum, perhaps not a Mahler 3 to go ringing down through the ages, but a thoroughly satisfying evening nonetheless.