Mahler: Symphony No 3

Royal Festival Hall, 12 December 2007 5 stars

RozhdestvenskyWhen a conductor stops conducting in the middle of a performance, it is usually a sign that something remarkable is happening. In fact, if he hadn't spent most of the evening hardly moving at all, then I probably would have interpreted Gennadi Rozhdestvensky's motionlessness at the end of his and the London Philharmonic's performance of Mahler's Third Symphony as a sign that he was simply too moved by his own outright genius. As it is, Rozhdestvensky's lack of gesture helped him to capture, in one of the most outstandingly moving concert performances I can remember, those fractures, silences and contradictions of Mahler's music which Theodor Adorno calls 'the script of truth.'

The performance began superbly, with the adamantine horns of the LPO blasting the gateway to the primordial world in which the first movement begins. Rozhdestvensky's tempo for this quasi-funereal music was well-chosen, slow enough to divest a vague sense of threat, but fast enough to leave the rushed 'cello and woodwind gestures clinging to the downbeats of the shifting, volcanic ground beneath them. Eliciting from the orchestra a paradoxically colourful-colourlessness, Rozhdestvensky created a vast orchestral negative of a storm-ridden, pre-human world. This was only one of many contradictions which marked this performance as utterly unforgettable.

For instance, a significant part of Rozhdestvensky's skill as conductor of this work lies in his ability to structure simply vast stretches of musical time as though they were mere moments. In the third movement, Mahler's dancing animals were roused to Bacchic heights by the sound of the searingly beautiful flugelhorn solo of Brian Thompson. The terror of this rite, however, grew slowly and imperceptibly from the dance which preceded it. There was no break, no parataxis, no shift - and yet, before it was perceptible, the orchestra were reveling in a Saturnalia where once there was only a dance. Rozhdestvensky's ability to treat huge expanses of musical space like the tiniest of Mozartian phrases was of course integral to the success of the long first movement. Indeed, although I at first wondered if the marching band music for which the first movement was originally so critically contentious was too polite, I quickly realised that this was simply part of Rozhdestvensky's greater sonic architecture. By gently beautifying the opening of this material, the abject horror of the closing march - Adorno's empty, objective, and thus deathly 'second-order material' - was infinitely more pronounced. As a result, Rozhdestvensky gave a large-scale coherence to the work which was simply breathtaking.

Another factor which made this concert successful was the sheer quality of the performers, who were patently performing their hardest under the baton of such a maestro. Mark Templeton's trombone solos in the first movement were profoundly moving, evoking the sweet poignancy of a Titan addressing the inanimate earth with whisper-fine melancholy. Boris Garlitsky led superbly throughout, and his solos were always sensitive and affecting; I particularly enjoyed the Hassadic touch which he and Rozhdestvensky brought to the solo passage in the second movement, a touch of Shostakovich's Jew seeping into Mahler's through their combined Russian heritage. Petra Lang was a commanding and authoritative mezzo, bringing to Nietzsche's 'Midnight Song' the determined self-exploration of the Ubermensch; alongside her, the Tiffin Boys Choir and the Women of the London Philharmonic Choir were generally excellent. I was concerned that the diction of the latter was slightly imprecise at times, but this hardly detracted from an otherwise outstanding performance of what is, for the boys especially, a difficult role to carry convincingly. The orchestra was, in every respect, absolutely remarkable.

Throughout the whole work, however, the greatest praise has to be reserved for Rozhdestvensky, who portrayed unequivocally the silence at the heart of Mahler's world. He lingered on held notes, demanded incredible depth of pianissimo, shaped gestures with a razorblade, and eked from a huge orchestra gossamer-like articulation of which a soloist would have been proud. Most notably, Rozhdestvensky's vision allowed every instrument its own space in a large orchestral texture; rather than creating a wall of sound, Rozhdestvensky allowed the holes which Mahler left in the middle of his scores to ring true. The fourth movement, for instance, engenders the sense of depth of which Nietzsche spoke in his text by presenting a hollow vacuum between its highest and lowest parts. It was through sensitivity to contradictions such as these - the arising of an awareness of silence through sound - that Rozhdestvensky's performance excelled.

This was Mahler's Third Symphony in its best possible form; professional, beautiful, and contradictory. Out of the mass of sound and the wealth of material, the expert baton of Rozhdestvensky managed to carve out the often-missed silence at the heart of the score. This is the silence in which Adorno heard the truth of Mahler's music, the alienation of the individual from society, the death of freedom, the absence of hope. This silence was reinforced by the most memorable silence of all, the one that cried out several times throughout the evening. The silence of the maestro, in control of his orchestra, his arms flat by his side.

By William Lockhart

Read our interview with Petra Lang about her performance at this concert here.

Read recent concert reviews, including Nikolaj Znaider's performance of Korngold's Violin Concerto with the LPO, here.