The Katowice Kultura Natura Festival may not be the first event to leap to mind when contemplating the myriad of musical offerings which pop up all over Europe at the first sniff of spring. Only in its fourth year, this newcomer to the interminable European festival scene is emblematic of the remarkable metamorphosis which has transformed the city of Katowice from an unaesthetic, sooty, former coal-mining town into a mecca of artistic accomplishment culminating in its recent UNESCO designation as “Creative City for Music”.

Alexander Liebreich © Bartek Barczyk
Alexander Liebreich
© Bartek Barczyk

The principal explanation for the explosion of musical activity in Katowice was the opening in 2014 of the new home for the Narodowa Orkiestra Symfoniczna Polskiego Radia, which is better known and much easier to say by its acronym: NOSPR. A work of the kaleidoscopic complexity of Mahler’s Third Symphony will test the credentials of any hall to the max and NOSPR came through magna cum laude.

There is nothing even remotely modest about Mahler’s monumental opus. As he wrote to part-time mistress Anna von Mildenburg, “Just imagine a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world”. It is a score of cosmic breadth and intricacy which presents daunting challenges to both orchestra and conductor. The last occasion on which the NOSPR musicians played the symphony was in 2010 and Bavarian-born maestro Alexander Liebreich was conducting it for the first time.   

At over 30 minutes in duration, the first movement (which was actually written last) is virtually a symphony in itself. With an extremely precise baton technique, Liebreich was the master sculptor, albeit closer to Michelangelo than Klaus Weber. The officious eight horns blasting the fortissimo fanfare to announce the arrival of summer was more self-effacing than seismic but the ensuing raucousness with glissandi-sliding trombones, blustering brass and shrieking winds hinted at Mahler’s intended mayhem. After all, this is the appearance of Pan from which the word ‘panic’ is derived and Mahler’s aviary should be much more like Alfred Hitchcock’s than Hall Bartlett’s. The surging fff scales from lower strings were also not as demonic as desired although the folksy piccolo-piercing waltzes came close to the optimal vulgar oomph. Arnold Schoenberg identified “forces of good and evil wrestling with each other” but the somewhat circumspect Polish musicians were better at benediction than gouging the grotesque. That said, first trombonist Tomasz Hajda displayed a wanton exuberance in his important solos and there was a whoopie cushion flatulence in the low F natural fp before the a tempo. 

Bernarda Fink © Alexander Liebreich
Bernarda Fink
© Alexander Liebreich

Part One was technically very well played but lacked the raw edginess which Mahler surely intended in his almost precocious determination to shock and awe. Mahler described the Minuetto as ‘the most carefree thing I have ever written’ which considering the usual Sturm und Drang of most of his compositions, is saying a lot. The delicate subtlety of this movement was impeccably performed with pristine dotted rhythms from first oboe Karolina Stalmachowska.  

Mahler maintained that “Ablösung in Sommer” should sound “as if all nature were making faces and sticking out its tongue… but one is overcome with horror rather than with laughter”. Liebreich’s reading eschewed the underlying macabre for friendlier frivolity and the offstage posthorn solos were more melodic than menacing. The intermediate orchestral crescendo/diminuendo with mystical harp glissandi displayed the Polish musicians’ capacity for carefully honed dynamic graduations. 

The Stygian calignosity of the fourth movement had the requisite bleakness and Bernarda Fink gave plenty of Weltschmerz to Nietzsche’s melancholy Midnight Song with a rich, warm timbre and ineffable sense of brooding mystery. Again, Stalmachowska’s hinaufziehen upward oboe glissandi had piercing poignancy.

In the snappy fifth movement, the Boys’ Choir was augmented by a contingent of girls similarly attired in cute Fauntleroy-esque floppy black bows. Simon Rattle made a similar modification in Birmingham but the purity of the treble timbre is invariably compromised. The well-scrubbed Polish children sang their impertinent ‘bimm-bamms’ with accuracy if not exactly Artful Dodger keck. For some reason the bells were not ‘in a high gallery’ as specified but stayed on stage.

Children's Choir © Bartek Barczyk
Children's Choir
© Bartek Barczyk

The final meditative Adagio recalled Barbirolli or Bernstein. The opening D major chorale had a luscious translucency in the strings with exceptionally nuanced rubati and phrasing.  Liebreich’s sense of the chamber music sonorities in the orchestration was evident and the superbly structured climax with pounding timpani in the triumphant coda suggested the Polish musicians were finally prepared to shed their Slavic sensibilities and defer to Dionysus.

This was a highly commendable concert from Alexander Liebreich and the NOSPR orchestra of one of Mahler’s most difficult and illusive works. But the most memorable aspect of the performance was the astounding acoustics of the Katowice hall which brought out every nook and cranny of this “mirror of the world” with dazzling luminescence.