Really big, huge, and absurdly enormous: thus goes the progression of Mahler's symphonies, in scale, scope, ensemble size and ambition — by the time he got to his Eighth, the "Symphony Of A Thousand," there was nowhere else to go, so in his Ninth he bid farewell to Earth, in one of the most exquisitely drawn-out, beatific denouements ever written (Mahler departing the mortal coil is a little like a Liza Minelli farewell tour: both… read more »
Really big, huge, and absurdly enormous: thus goes the progression of Mahler's symphonies, in scale, scope, ensemble size and ambition — by the time he got to his Eighth, the "Symphony Of A Thousand," there was nowhere else to go, so in his Ninth he bid farewell to Earth, in one of the most exquisitely drawn-out, beatific denouements ever written (Mahler departing the mortal coil is a little like a Liza Minelli farewell tour: both take the same amount of time to say goodbye that most people take to introduce themselves, tell their story, leave, encore, and leave again). Mahler, more than any composer before him, wanted to fit the world into his symphonies, and he kept upping the ante on himself and his audience, all the while taking great pains not to lose anyone. Like all of history's most maniacally ambitious pop musicians, he was constantly torn between his musical aspirations and his hunger for wider recognition and fame. It is to Mahler that generations of self-described "misunderstood" composers attribute the quote "My time will come" when their more difficult works fall on indifferent ears, but this quote misremembers just how greedily Mahler latched onto to a single positive notice, or how he obsessively catalogued all music world's slights against him.
His Third Symphony is his longest and in many ways his most grandiose — the opening movement is a half an hour's-worth of being pummeled by lightning bolts from Zeus, of thundering trumpets, martial drums and roiling strings churning like an angry sea. Like most Mahler, it is both thrilling and exhausting, and in this reading, positively ravishing. Valery Gergiev coaxes a ripely sensuous, darkly glowing sound from the orchestra, which feels completely caught up in the movement's tense, coiled brooding. The double basses toss off sharply etched, rapid-fire figures, and the random drum beats resound like the hammering "blows of fate" that Mahler would later use in his emotionally shattering Sixth Symphony. Mahler symphonies are often gauntlets for horn players, with incredibly taxing parts that offer potential for heroism of the highest order, and the horns here are like a glittering phalanx, never fudging or missing the chance to finesse a single note.
The second and third movements, which play out like the long sigh of relief following a violent storm, breathe with ease and contentment. The strings stretch out the "Some Enchanted Evening"-esque melody of the second movement like taffy, milking it for all of its schmaltzy glory, while the flute curlicues and burnished woodwinds of the third movement show again just how skilled Mahler was at pastoral tone-painting. I'm a sucker for abyssal depths, and this was therefore the first Mahler symphony that truly hooked me: there was an astonishing amount of beautiful music here, too much to take in — listening to the whole piece felt like drinking from a fire hose. There are tons of Mahler recordings out there — eMusic also offers Michael Tilson Thomas's excellent cycle with the San Francisco Symphony — but the LSO's is uniquely warm, vibrant, and expansive, probably a result of the special charge you only get from a live recording.