Football players, when faced with a long season or championship, are advised to “take each game as it comes”. A casual listener to Mahler’s Symphony no. 3, if such a person can exist, might be well advised to do the same: the work is so diverse, so all-embracing in scope, so just plain long that it’s hard to take it in as a single joined up entity.

Alan Gilbert © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Alan Gilbert
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Having said which, the journey from Pan’s portentous opening to the nirvana of the last movement is a joyous one, packed with wonderful moments of music, especially when played as enthusiastically as was done in Prom 73, by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and conductor Alan Gilbert, replacing the indisposed Riccardo Chailly. There’s no point in my even attempting a full précis of the work’s structure, so I’ll just list some of the passages that moved or delighted.

The first movement is full of fragments of themes that recur at different times in its course (and, in some cases, in altered form in later movements). The opening fanfare showed the Gewandhaus horn section to be capable of rich and weighted sound; this and the subsequent theme when trumpet and trombone give way to frantic strings were both moments of real thrill. Mahler’s trademark habit of going off into little village dance music may be corny, but it works: if you embrace the whole of creation, you pick up some of the profane and banal as well as the sublime.

But top of the ranks, for me, has to be the extended posthorn solo in the third movement, played from a gallery high in the hall, shaped with transcendent beauty to produce the highest intensity of distant nostalgia. So instinctively natural was the phrasing that Gilbert more or less stopped conducting and let his string players follow its lilt. The player wasn’t credited individually in the programme: I’d love to know who it was. [Update: the posthorn was played by Lukas Beno, the Gewandhaus' principal trumpet.]

Gerhild Romberger sang “Oh, Mensch!” in the fourth movement with power and depth. It’s more or less impossible for a single unamplified voice to completely fill the cavernous Albert Hall, but Romberger gave depth and shape to Nietzsche’s somewhat delphic lyrics, helped by perfect balance between voice and orchestra. This was followed by the exuberant joy of the fifth movement entry of the Gewandhaus Children’s Choir with its “bim–bams”, children's voices to bring sunshine into the darkest moments of reflection.

After the exuberance, the finale returned with the introspective calm of its opening, played with rare beauty by the strings. For the first time, the music lost its shape somewhat in the middle section of this movement, to recover it for the bravado ending: the sight of the four arms of timpanists Marek Stefula and Tom Greenleaves holding their sticks aloft and crashing them down was a great piece of showmanship.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Gewandhaus percussion section were awesome all night, every beat right on the nail and perfectly weighted. The woodwinds were also impeccable. Brass timbre was gorgeous, but timing wasn’t exactly flawless, with rather more cracked notes and slightly mistimed entries than one might have wished. String playing was accurate, but with a sound that erred on the thin side – I would have preferred a thicker timbre to balance out the lushness coming from the rest of the orchestra.

Gilbert, it seems to me, is a leader rather than a driver of his musicians. He doesn’t micromanage them on stage (any micromanagement presumably happens in rehearsal) – rather, he goes through the work performing it in a sort of one man choreography, his body language showing total involvement in the music and urging his players to follow him. And anything I’ve said about the difficulty of taking in the symphony as a whole clearly doesn’t apply to Gilbert: he conducted the whole hundred minutes without a score, showing a clear sense of intent in every element.

Gilbert’s reading is an individual one which won’t please everyone. He gave an uncommonly large amount of breathing space to some passages, especially in the first movement, which delighted me but might not be to everyone’s taste. Other passages were very brisk indeed. But however you feel about each individual conducting decision, the performance as a whole was a wonderful thing: truly the representation of all of creation that Mahler strove for. It’s a symphony that I’ll keep coming back for.

****1