One often hears words like monumental, elemental or colossal in relation to the great symphonies of the repertoire, but surely Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 in D minor is one of the few truly deserving of such adjectives. This is a mammoth (there’s another one) undertaking, and at over one hour and forty minutes, the longest symphony in the core repertoire. Its opening movement alone is well over half an hour long.

Jakub Hrůša © Pavel Hejnz
Jakub Hrůša
© Pavel Hejnz
The Philharmonia is of course no stranger to the work, having recorded it on several occasions, most recently as part of a live cycle with Lorin Maazel conducting, and the same choral forces: the women of the professional chorus, Philharmonia Voices, and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. Having performed it in Leicester last night, they were all back at the Royal Festival Hall for tonight’s performance.

A regular guest conductor with the Philharmonia, Jakub Hrůša has been hailed by Gramophone as being “on the verge of greatness” – but ready for the weight of Mahler’s Third? On the evidence of this evening, I’d say a definite yes, although I suspect there is more depth to come in the future from him. This was a well-paced performance, and Hrůša had a keen eye on the overall architecture throughout, which can often be forgotten, particularly in the shorter middle movements. Mahler had a clear progression in mind, from the elemental forces of nature in the massive opening movement, through nature and animals, night and day, ultimately leading to love, and specifically love of God. So the light simplicity of the Ländler and the cheeky childlike fifth movement have just as important a place in the arc of the symphony as large scale outer movements and the dark and sombre Nietzsche setting.

Back to that huge opening movement, however. The eight unison horns launched proceedings in a suitably dramatic fashion, supposedly coming out of the empty void, although the theme’s close echo in shape to the big tune in the fourth movement of Brahms’ First Symphony suggests a past before this story begins. The ominously rumbling bass drum and the augmented harmony of the trumpet motif set up a brooding sense of uncertainty, and Hrůša slowly but firmly layered the tension here, transforming the initially delicate march with slowly increasing aggression. But the star of this movement was surely Byron Fulcher, the first trombone, managing the transition from the first solo passage’s reticent, almost faltering utterances, to great tenderness and sensitivity later in the movement. On the whole, Hrůša articulated the frequent tempo changes convincingly: just once or twice the transitions could have been smoother. The relentless build to the movement’s frenzied conclusion, the full force of Pan, and Mahler’s raging ‘southern storm’, was powerful and elemental.

Hrůša gave the lightness of the second movement Ländler poise and elegance, with particular attention to dynamic detail, also managing subtle rubato in the strings towards the movement’s end. The Scherzo had real bounce, with Hrůša again exhibiting subtlety in the lifted rhythms, yet allowing for a sense of horror in the sudden rattling downward brass scales. This raucous mood is broken by the sound of the offstage posthorn. Christian Barraclough was perhaps slightly too present to be ‘as if from a great distance’ as Mahler stipulated, but he played with such simplicity and naivety of tone, and his timing and tuning was flawless. Once or twice in this movement I felt the orchestral players’ energy might have been flagging slightly, but they perked up for the movement’s blistering finish.

Then time almost stopped for Bernarda Fink’s heartfelt yet austere rendition of Nietzsche’s words in the fourth movement. She gave the two words “O Mensch” the weight of the world, demanding attention and communicating pain and sadness in her rich tone. Once again, Mahler breaks the mood with a sudden change, with the “Bimm Bamm” bells of the boys and simple, almost kitsch folksong, one of Mahler’s Wunderhorn settings. The women of the Philharmonia Voices made a bright, full sound, and the boys sang with spirit, from memory. Only occasionally did the voices struggle over the forces of the full orchestra, but that’s more down to the RFH acoustic.

Hrůša shaped the luscious opening of the finale beautifully, holding back the strings and avoiding allowing them to overindulge. The horn, and then the woodwind try to join in with countermelodies, but the strings don’t let go, becoming more urgent and insistent. A slightly early bass drum downbeat heralded the beginning of the slow build, with repeated rising statements of the chorale theme increasingly notching up the emotional heat. Yet even as the end appeared in sight, Hrůša maintained control, repeatedly pulling the orchestra back before finally allowing the majesty of the closing pages to take hold. The final double timpani crashes brought a triumphant performance to a jubilant end.