How can you depict the whole world in an hour and a half? The Royal Scottish National Orchestra rounded off its season in jubilant, life-affirming style with a sensational performance of one of the biggest musical mountains, Mahler’s gargantuan Third Symphony. An augmented orchestra was joined by the considerable forces of the RSNO Ladies' Chorus, the RSNO Junior Chorus and Canadian mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, all under the baton of Music Director Peter Oundjian. Mahler explained to Sibelius that “the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” If ever a work comes close, this symphony must be a contender, with its rambling journey exploring all of nature, man, a glimpse of heavenly life and finally a depiction of exquisite love.

Peter Oundjian © Sian Richards
Peter Oundjian
© Sian Richards

The first movement is colossal, the large brass contingent setting down a dramatic statement as the music works through astonishing development with a triumphant march emerging. There were big solos from a mournful trombone, sweet cor anglais and lonely violin, but it was a fascination to watch Oundjian play light and shade, eventually stoking up the orchestral passion to a white heat. A double set of timpani and, at one point, three pairs of crash cymbals added visual and aural drama to this huge movement, coming in at over half an hour. The playing was superb, cellos and basses virtually dancing as the march reappeared, the woodwind almost shrieking at times, particularly when the four flute players all picked up piccolos and the clarinets blasted straight out over their music stands. For all the drama, the music never really settles, a restless undercurrent pervades with astringent trumpet calls, growling brass and dark menacing bassoons, Mahler stirring a wonderfully sinister broth as the potent music thrashes around. It’s a brutal undercurrent as you only have to watch the cellos beating their strings with the back of their bows at the end.

A couple of minutes breather for the conductor and a re-tune for the players, and the chaotic world blossomed into flowery meadows with a serene oboe over plucked strings as a rustic dance emerged with a rute making an appearance in the percussion. Next there was a touch of Alpine air with a haunting offstage flugelhorn, Oundjian delicately balancing his forces to conjure up a beautiful world of mountain mists.

Susan Platt’s lovely rich mezzo timbre was perfectly suited to Nietzche’s O Mensch from Thus Spake Zarathustra taking us from deep gloom to joyous delight, the exuberance continuing as the children’s Bim-Bam bells heralded Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the ladies chorus sounding clear and bright. It’s a long sit for the singers – over an hour from warm-up and sitting stock-still without fidgeting – yet their attack was crisp and true, a credit to chorus masters Gregory Batsleer and Christopher Bell.

Moving from men and angels to love, the long final slow movement is a counterbalance to the restlessness of the first. Sublime strings, hushed, created a mesmerising effect as Oundjian’s hands drew shapes in the air, building the passion to a climactic finale.

Mahler’s Third is an overwhelming experience. For over an hour and a half we listened to and watched musicians conjuring up the whole world before our eyes and ears. Extended applause brought Oundjian back to the platform several times, and as the two timpani players shook hands at the back Oundjian threaded his way through the orchestra seeking out those for whom this would be their final concert, hugging them warmly, a tender gesture rounding off a memorable humanitarian evening of music.