There is a always a certain excitement that surrounds Mahler symphonies, almost an expectation of a transformative experience, one which will leave the listener in a different place at its conclusion to the one in which he started. It is an experience which should leave you feeling refreshed, but at the same time having been on a journey which will have been tempestuous, but also calming and soothing in equal measures. It is this kind of “out of body experience” which lovers of this music come to expect and it is this expectation which created the palpable tension in Roy Thomson Hall as we awaited this concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The hall is visually very impressive and, even though it is a relatively large space, it seemed that no seat was too far from the stage. Instead the audience seemed to surround the orchestra in an amphitheatre-type of setting, creating an intimate feel and making us all feel very much like part of the experience.

Jamie Barton, Peter Oundjian and the TSO © Jag Photography
Jamie Barton, Peter Oundjian and the TSO
© Jag Photography

The last time I heard a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony was a couple of months ago at the BBC Proms in a magical performance under Bernard Haitink, so comparisons were at the forefront of my mind. Peter Oundjian’s interpretation was very different to Haitink’s – his tempi were faster and he brought out more of the often impetuous character of the music, whereas Haitink played more of the longer game which had more cohesiveness as a whole. To that end, some performances have an interval after the first movement while some go straight through with a few minutes to allow us to catch our breath after the mammoth opening movement. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra elected to have a full interval. I’m not sure I particularly like this; somehow, the atmosphere and tension is lost in the break and the start of the second movement after the long pause feels almost like another piece, somehow devoid from the colossal drama which has preceded it.

Nevertheless, there was much drama to savour in this orchestra’s electric performance. The opening horn figure at the outset bristled with energy and culminated in an exhilarating crescendo as the figure gave way to the triplet rhythms in the lower brass. The silence of the the solo bass drum triplet solo was highly engaging, the clarity a testament to the hall’s excellent acoustic. The highlight of the first movement was the trombone solo, which was exquisite. This solo is always a reminder of just how lyrical the trombone can be as an instrument, especially when it is played as well as it was here. The other solo I love in this work is the off-stage posthorn solo in the third movement. This exposed solo (played here on the cornet by Andrew McCandless) requires poise and a great deal of control and was executed faultlessly. Despite the fact that the cornet was off-stage, the ensemble with the orchestra was also faultless. The sweet, clear, ringing tone was spine-tingling.

The other spine-tingling moment of the evening was the beginning of the fourth movement.  The quiet strings effecting the very cold change of harmony coupled with the entry of the rich, creamy tone of mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, cut straight through to the emotional crux of the music. She continued with the same intensity, singing with such a silky, creamy tone which was pure luxury. She was joined in the fifth movement by the Women of the Amadeus Choir and The Elmer Iseler Singers with the Oriana Women’s Choir and the Toronto Children’s Chorus, all of whom communicated the text with clarity, producing a pleasant, bright tone which contrasted with that of Barton. However, despite all that happens in these first five movements, nothing ever quite prepares the listener for the final movement, which through its slow moving D major melody, suspensions and lush harmony seems to sum up everything which has gone before in a way which is impossible to describe. Oundijan and the TSO string section filled the music with a great sense of longing but warmth at the same time. When the brass entered, it was as if the strings and indeed the audience had been enveloped in a golden, reassuring hue. The work concluded with a crescendo which seemed to grow from somewhere deep within the orchestra and rose through the concert hall; this, with the double timpani strikes of the tonic and dominant brought the work to a conclusion which felt complete. I was going to use the word ‘triumphant’ but somehow that does not seem appropriate with this work. The measure of a great performance of this work is that you feel completely satisfied at its conclusion, which is how I felt at the end of this particular journey.