“Brass, lots of brass, incredibly much brass! Even more brass, nothing but brass!” While an early critic’s response to Mahler’s music is hilariously exaggerated, there is more than a grain of truth in relation to the monumental Symphony no. 3. It’s long, very long – a stamina-testing hour and half of music – and it’s brassy, very brassy. And if that wasn’t enough, its modest ambition is that it must be “like the world – it must contain everything”. Starting with the awakening of Pan (god of the wild), the symphony depicts flora, fauna, man, angels and ends with a paean of love. It makes colossal demands musically, emotionally and spiritually on musician and listener alike, but perhaps its foremost challenge for the conductor is to bring together its disparate parts into a cohesive whole. Last night, Buribayev and the NSO with characteristic energy and passion gave a gripping rendition of this mighty work.

Alan Buribayev © Simon van Boxtel
Alan Buribayev
© Simon van Boxtel
The first movement itself is an unwieldy beast lasting the best part of forty minutes with its four main themes creating a kaleidoscopic sound world. The sense of primeval foreboding was evident with harsh sinister trumpet shrieks and the low mutterings on the horns. The vivid colouring and spot-on intonation of all the brass sections (horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba) was terrifically impressive from the word go, though understandably given its length there was the odd slippage in tuning towards the later stages of the symphony. Principal trombonist Jason Sinclair’s solo was full of great beauty and sensitivity. The arrival of summer was like a soft breeze on the violin and flute while the summer march was cheery and carefree. Buribayev whipped the orchestra into a frenzy at the points of climax and while the sonic boom was almost unbearable at times, it was undoubtedly tremendously exciting and true to Mahler’s pantheistic conception.

The lowering of the decibels in the second movement (“What the Flowers of the Meadow tell me”) came as a relief after the exuberance of the fanfare of Pan’s reveille. Oboist Matthew Manning’s delicate opening melody was exquisitely shaped while the harps showed excellent sensitivity co-ordinating with principal violinist, Helena Wood. The lush string interjections caught the tone wonderfully, but the minuet was redolent of the delicacy of hothouse flowers rather than the earthiness of wild flowers.

Never lacking in energy, Buribayev brought the sound world of the third movement to life in “What the Animals of the Forest tell me”. The woodwind poked fun with the cacophonous sound of animal noises while the posthorn solo, signifying the arrival of the post in Austrian villages, possessed a thoroughly ephemeral and otherworldly sound.

With the arrival of mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm on stage and the children’s choir RTE Cór na nÓg in the choir balcony, we were prepared for the fourth movement “What Man tells me”. Drumm sung Mahler’s setting of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra with sensitivity and earnestness. The repeated “Tief, tief, tief ist ihr Weh!” were imbued with increasing sorrow and though at times her vibrato was slightly too thick she caught the movement’s transcendental moments very well.

After an extraordinary patient wait of over an hour and ten minutes the ladies of the RTE Philharmonic Choir with the children’s chorus sang of “What the Angels tell me” in light-hearted, innocent fashion. The bell-like “bimm, bamm” rang out lustily while Drumm’s singing of heavenly joy was most convincing.

And so to the glorious final movement adagio “What Love tells me”. In the last movement "words are stilled – for what language can utter heavenly love more powerfully and forcefully than music itself?” as Bruno Walter eloquently put it. Here the simplest of melodies was passed seamlessly between the differing string sections creating a magical impression. The violin solo (despite some infelicities from the horn) throbbed with a yearning wistfulness. Buribayev understood Mahler’s idea of redemption in this final movement, drawing an intense vibrato from every string player, creating a powerful wave of sound that welled up nobly to a tremendous degree before ebbing away. Equally impressive was his finely graded control of dynamics, building the music to its apotheosis in a spine-tingling way so that we seemed to be subsumed by the grandeur of this mystical experience. It was a performance which grew steadily more convincing as the movements rolled by, culminating as Mahler himself declared, so that “Nature in its totality may ring and resound”. 

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