“No need to look – I have composed all this already!” This was Mahler’s remark to conductor Bruno Walter on seeing him admiring the scenery in Steinbach that had inspired the Third Symphony. A grand statement, to be sure, but it was not merely this beautiful Alpine landscape that Mahler sought to evoke in his monumental work. He had something rather larger in mind: namely, the world itself. What a brief, then, for the conductor and performers! Delightfully, any doubts as to whether music can indeed conjure up all the sights and sounds of nature were soon banished by the captivating interpretation given by the massed ranks of the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya (OBC) and three choirs – Aglepta, Voxalba and Sant Cugat – under Pablo González, with Christianne Stotijn as the soloist.  

© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve
The scene was set right from the beginning as the nine-piece horn section rang out in triumphal unison, bells aloft. The effects during the primordial soup that follows – ominous bassoons, menacing upper string tremolos, biting trumpets and tectonic bass drum – conjured up a world that alternated between the utterly terrifying and the blackly eerie. Mahler, in a letter to violist Natalie Bauer-Lechner, declared that certain passages scared him, and I felt no less secure as the music tumbled around for over half an hour in this colossal first movement. Even the ostensibly settled march section was never truly reassuring with its crashing brass and thunderous lower strings, and it soon returned to the horrors of the preceding section.

Sweet violin and horn solos would herald a semblance of order, but at each turn, the cellos and basses would release the monster from its shackles, setting off frenzied romps that were punctuated by gloriously shrill high winds. Particularly noteworthy was Eusebio Saéz’s stridently rich trombone, weathering the transitions between menace and calm with utter confidence and precision. The joyously brassy conclusion was electric, charged with energy that rang out until the last chord. 

Mahler gave the name “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me” to the second movement, Tempo di Menuetto, Sehr mässig. In the end, he omitted this and the other subtitles from the programme; however, it was difficult not to have flora in mind during this evocative movement, its gently swaying melodies, rooted down by crisp pizzicati, gave way to whirling woodwinds and strings. Unfortunately, the heady aromas of this summer field gave way to a slightly distasteful odour due to the tuning at the very end – some first violins needing deadheading, no doubt.

The bad smell did not linger, however, and the third movement (Comodo. Scherzando. Ohne Hast) was wonderfully controlled even in its more rousing moments, aided by González’s light conducting. True beauty was conjured by the posthorn solo, which sounded from far off over a summery Alpine haze that enveloped the room. Certainly no need to look, here – the posthorn was well out of sight – and the absolute silence from the audience indicated that all were under the spell of Mahler’s soundscape.

Atmospheric and barely audible lower strings transported the auditorium into the darkness of night for the fourth movement: a setting of the “Midnight Song” from Nietzche’s Also sprach Zarathustra for solo alto. Dutch mezzosoprano Christianne Stotijn was sublime, enticing the musicality out of Nietzsche’s words in a way that was utterly harmonious with the accompanying music. The darkly brooding quality to Stotijn’s voice was more reminiscent of a contralto than a mezzo, and she sat perfectly over the sparse orchestration, controlling the long phrasing magnificently. A slight reduction in length of the second iteration of “O Mensch!” added a subtle sense of urgency to Stotijn’s delivery, and the room was left contemplating the nature of eternity as the strings faded into silence.

The children’s choir burst into their “Bimm Bamm!” as they were still springing up at the beginning of the fifth movement, making for a wonderfully light contrast to the previous mood. The text, taken from a German collection of old folk songs entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn, tells of the sweet song of three angels. The three choirs more than rose to the role, singing with clear enunciation and youthful spirit. 

González began the final movement (Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden) exquisitely softly. Wonderfully together strings made the music come alive – I could almost hear it breathing, and the quietness made it even more magical. This endless beauty never lost its way, despite the length of the movement, and the triumphant conclusion was one of the most emotionally charged and overwhelming experiences I have had in a concert hall. The players moved as one, visibly affected by the immense journey they had taken the audience on. And what a journey it was. I was looking, yes, watching the OBC give their all, but I have never been so sure that I was listening to the world.