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MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 in D Minor – Sara Mingardo, contralto/ Youth Singers of the Koelner Dom/ Guerzenich Orchestra, Cologne/ Francois-Xavier Roth – Harmonia mundi HMM 905314.15, (2 CDs) TT: 1:33:29  (2/9/19) [Distr. by PIAS] ****:

Mahler’s Third Symphony (1895-97) premiered 1902 – by the Guerzenich Orchestra under the composer – stands as his longest and most pantheistic of his symphonic works, a celebration of Nature’s totality, buttressed by verses from both Nietzsche’s The Gay Science and Also Sprach Zarathustra, ensured musically at the time by Mahler’s having met his ideal trombone player, Franz Dreyer. Mahler quite literally wants his symphony to embrace a “world” in the same convulsive gesture that defines a Scriabin impulse to cosmic solipsism. “Pan Awakens” literally with eight unison horns intoning a motif that seems a direct extension of the Brahms C minor Symphony last movement. Given the prominent contribution of the Guerzenich bass fiddles in the midst of what proves to be a double-development section, we must lament that Koussevitzky never found this monumental work to his taste to show off the Boston Symphony.  Much of the first movement devotes itself to brilliant, primal marches accompanied by tempestuous work in the battery, timpani, side drums, and percussion, all to augment manic brass fanfares.  The sheer sprawl of the music intimidates and awes us: perhaps even more so in the delicacy of birdsong and bucolic nostalgia the music invokes as a foil to the sense of spectacle.

Portrait Gustav Mahler by Moritz Nähr

Gustav Mahler,
by Moritz Nähr

The second movement originally bore the title “What the flowers and Meadows tell me,” almost a direct kin to the fourth section of Smetana’s national symphonic poem Ma Vlast.  A minuet in rondo form, the music has the oboe proffer the flowers of melody that gently waft into luscious string work.  But typical of Mahler, the bliss of Nature has its interruptions from Nature’s grotesques and rude awakenings, from the glockenspiel and muted trumpets. Whatever its revels in contradiction, the music manages a mesmeric effect.  In the succeeding third movement, Comodo: Scherzando, “What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me,” combines a lusty fascination with bird call variation, made heraldic by an off-stage posthorn. The thick counterpoint enjoys several correspondences with the Scherzo of the Beethoven Ninth.  The song of summer, of nightingale and cuckoo, finds a sense of menace in the advent of Man, whose spokesman in the posthorn intones a melody close to La Folia. The trumpet and flute introduce new dance energies into the bucolic, drunken mix, which scampers, reels, and then bursts into a cavernous welter – in the form of the Jota Aragonesa – of pantheistic intoxication.

Portrait Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche

Nietzsche’s fateful admonition for Mankind to “Take Heed” opens movement four, realized in a timbral sound alien and other-worldly.  “What the Night Tells Me” is that the hour of midnight should alert us to the deep mysteries of life and death.  Low piccolos, English horn, and string harmonics contribute to a sound which Mahler wishes to resemble “a cry of Nature.” Alto Sara Mingardo captures the static, eerily poignant verses of Nietzsche, whose emphasis on “Tief” (Deep) has the cosmic irony of “raising” our existential awareness.  Intellect and moral conscience inhabit a world devoid of melody but hearty with the pulse of expectation.

The boys’ choir heralds a new innocence, an extension of the “primal light” of the Second Symphony: the youthful voices ring out forgiveness, while the alto confesses that Mankind might not be worthy of redemption. The women’s chorus complements the conceit with verses from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, emotions that will find even more “esoteric” expression in the Symphony No. 4 in G Major.  For his expansive finale, Mahler’s strategy develops a huge, graduated crescendo that bears the hallmarks of Beethoven’s final Quartet in F Major, Op. 135.  Slowly, ineluctably, Mahler reaches and sustains a huge D Major supported by two sets of thunderous timpani, cosmic Annunciation of spiritual acceptance.

Recorded in October 2018 under the masterful supervision of Recording Engineer Jens Schuenemann, this reading of the Mahler 3rd warmly celebrates the music and its premiere venue with authority and luminous taste.

—Gary Lemco