It takes any orchestra plenty of confidence and daring to embark on a single-work programme. There isn’t much chance for redemption should something go amiss. Then again, the length of Mahler’s third symphony and its demands on physical and emotional stamina don’t leave the Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor Lorin Maazel much choice. As it turns out, they acquitted themselves with flying colours.

The work, in six movements, lasts a monumental 100 minutes. Ambitious in scope, profound in depth of emotion and awe-inspiring in intensity, the work has potential to trip up the most confident orchestra from the very first bar.

Mahler originally gave each of the movements a narrative description, but since they were later scrapped, one wonders whether they are reliable guideposts to appreciation of the music. The first movement, for example, bears the description “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In.”

The resolute declaration by the horns that opens the movement is symbolic of an awakening, but the rest of movement, meandering through a varied rhythmic, harmonic, orchestral and melodic terrain, delivers much more. At the helm of the orchestral voyager, Maazel combined gentle coaxing with pointed direction to help it navigate glibly through the terrain, with a refreshing clarity of vision. Never for a moment was the contrast among the disparate elements of the movement lost. Subtle and timid violin solos were pitted sharply against the humdrum beat of the march, the impish melodic interludes and the bulging crudeness of the brass. If the full fury of the orchestra, unleashed in an explosive conclusion to the movement, indeed signalled summer’s awakening, then it would be a rude one.

According to Norman Lebrecht in his book Why Mahler, the opening theme is from the finale in Brahms’ First Symphony, which Mahler apparently transposed into a minor key. However, Lebrecht points out, the theme is “originally a folk tune…used as a nationalist student anthem.”

Lebrecht claims that with this theme, Mahler “opens the symphony with an implied protest against racial discrimination”. “This pastoral symphony begins with…a foretaste of Nazi violence in an irony so heavy that nobody recognizes its intent,” he concludes. Failure to capture this irony, Lebrecht argues, gives away many a competent conductor. I suspect that Maazel’s emphasis on this irony would have disappointed Lebrecht, but the movement was none the worse for it.

The second movement, dubbed “What the meadow flowers tell me,” was a drastic change of mood and pace. Maazel’s interpretation made it a credible musical representation of a Wordsworth poem or John Constable painting. Its idyllic outpouring is nothing short of the quintessential Vaughan Williams and Frederick Delius. The humming of the birds, the fresh scent of the grass, and the murmuring creek all come to life. We held our breath, lest we break the soap-bubble delicacy and lightness of the sound.

A gentle dance-like melody with an underlying mocking tone opened the third movement, described as “What the creatures of the forest tell me.” Borrowed heavily from one of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs, its orchestral charm was further augmented by the post horn interludes, which were played off stage in accordance with the composer’s instructions that they should be played “as if from a great distance”.

In the fourth movement, a sombre rendering of the “Midnight Song” from Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly stepped in at the last minute to replace Christianne Stotijn, who was afflicted with a throat infection. The last time I heard Connolly was at the beginning of the year, in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of a Wayfarer"). My descriptions then of her “controlled phrasing” and “deep sonority” remain valid. Although her presence was but brief, she quietly plunged us into the depths of darkness, without us even realising it.

The fifth movement, marked “What the morning bells tell me,” opened with a boys’ choir singing a light, bouncy tune about three angels celebrating Peter’s absolution from sin. It slowly developed into a worrisome theme portending unpleasant surprises.

The finale, bearing the description “What love tells me”, aptly opened with an extended melody of languid, wailing lyricism on the strings. This gradually opened up to the rest of the orchestra in stages, painting an expansive vision of openness, magnanimity and grandeur. Like the trickle of a stream that builds up into the torrent of a tidal wave, engulfing all in its gushing energy, the crescendo was one of cathartic glory, up-lifting and forward-looking. The image was that of the pearly gates opening in front of us. If heaven is indeed this beautiful, what are we waiting for?

One word sums up the Philharmonia Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s third symphony under Lorin Maazel: clarity. There was never any doubt about his vision for the work. Throughout the performance, he wore his heart on his sleeves, and the orchestra responded with crisp transparency. If ever one needs evidence that there is a world of difference between attending a live performance and listening to a recording, no matter how well done, this was it. I’m just sorry I won’t be able to attend other concerts in the Mahler Cycle 2011.