It was long, it was big, it was brassy: Gustav Mahler’s gargantuan Third Symphony conducted by Christoph Eschenbach at the Kennedy Center last night. The “symphony is the world” gushed Mahler, “it must embrace everything”. And his Third does seek to embrace everything – flowers and animals, day and night, sorrow and joy and, finally, love. Perhaps it would be unfair to call it a mixum-gatherum, but it is truly eclectic as well as epic, a challenging work to bring together as a whole, its tendencies decidedly fissiparous.

Christoph Eschenbach © Eric Brissaud
Christoph Eschenbach
© Eric Brissaud
The first movement with its four main themes – a kind of chaotic primeval void out of which order is forged (after up to 40 minutes of intense effort) – is never comfortable – never for long, at any rate; great music with a definite schizophrenic personality disorder. The kaleidoscopic was handled quite well; Eschenbach is a conductor well-suited to musical caesuras and ruptures: he clearly enjoys cutting through lines of instrumentation, turning fiercely on another section, and punching out thrusts of sounds. Visually, we suffer from a habitual string-bias as regards the orchestra: they are always in our line of sight. And this symphony is all about the brass – well not quite all, but certainly to a large extent. Credit to Craig Mulcahy in particular for his trombone solos. The folksy theme, with its fair-ground hurdy-gurdy jingles, was, especially when it returned, rather glutinously paced; in fact maybe the whole needed to be more mouvementé. What I did like was the contrast in extremes of volume. On one (perhaps two occasions), the volume was shattering, to the point of discomfort. Some might have found it too much, too raw. I rather approved. Mahler should be discomforting, at least sometimes. I also liked how silence was respected, how the music started again and again from nothingness – sound rising up from the primeval void, as it were; this was nicely echoed in the finale.

The second movement (“What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”) which Mahler thought to be the “most carefree” music he had ever written, was a welcome relief from the largeness of sound, although the minuet could certainly have been more grazioso. The lyrical interjections of lush strings (no surprise that it was Mahler’s protégés who would go onto write those luxuriant scores for Hollywood films in the Golden Age; for us, they have that unmistakable resonance) were more assured in tone.

We had some sinuous muted strings in the third movement (What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me) and the celebrated posthorn solo from a far distant place (there was some lack of perfect trueness in the brass here). The call of the posthorn used to indicate the arrival of the post in Austrian villages, yet another sign of the frequent demotic references in this work, which takes us from the primeval void through Nietzsche to Christian redemption by the surprising way of cuckoos, chimes and children. But nothing surprises in Mahler’s catholic outlook.

Nietzsche was indeed next with Anne Sofie von Otter, the Swedish mezzo-soprano, singing a setting of the “Midnight Song” from Zarathustra. Perhaps it was just where I was sitting, for although the voice was clear and expression ardent, there seemed to be something of a balancing issue with the brass. I wasn’t as moved as I had hoped I would be, except by the final hushed note.

The Children’s Chorus and the Women of the Choral Arts Society of Washington were on hand to tell us “What the Angels” told Mahler, singing a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Nietzsche it was who had died, after all, we found; God was back. This was light-heartedly sung as written, but I had some difficulty connecting the two vocal movements with the whole. Something wasn’t quite hanging together.

Finally, there was the power and the glory of the great Adagio (“What Love Tells Me”). We had some good sustained subdued melodic lines, and carefully-drawn cross-references with the first and fifth movements, and then at the last, the “saturated, noble tone”, desired by Mahler, of the work’s redemptive ending. Big it certainly was, and long (longer than many renditions), with some high moments, and populist folksy touches, but ultimate cohesiveness was somewhat lacking. Perhaps because it is such a sprawling symphony, one needs to be all the more careful not to let it sprawl into dispersion. It's always going to be a symphony against which the conductor has to do battle. And ideally, win. I was left a tad battle-weary by the kaleidescopic variety of it all and was not so sure we won the promised peace. 

***11