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Review: City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra with mezzo-soprano Hannah Poulsom: Mahler: Symphony No. 3 in D minor. West Road Concert Hall: Saturday 11 May

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The concert programme warned that there would be no interval for drinks or other comforts during CCSO’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1893-6), the longest of his 10, and the longest work ever performed by this orchestra.

The symphony, said the composer, ‘must be like the world. It must embrace everything’. Mahler is a latter day Romantic, in the tradition of figures like Coleridge: ‘the universe itself – what but an immense heap of little things? . . . My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great – something one & indivisible.’ In his own 3rd Symphony, said Mahler, ‘the whole of nature finds a voice’. It seems to have had a purpose to embrace the kind of all-inclusive unity that Coleridge was searching for.

CCSO conductor Robert Hodge. (10262584)
CCSO conductor Robert Hodge. (10262584)

Conductor Robert Hodge and the CCSO demonstrated sustained measures of attention and concentration in their delivery of this extraordinary work, extending to an hour and three quarters of demanding musicianship from every section of the orchestra.

Mahler brings together elements from a huge range of sources: oratorio, lieder, folk songs, opera, symphonies, street ditties and tone poems, each requiring its own specialised form of presentation. CCSO threw all its impressive expertise at this challenging piece, from upfront brass in the marching elements of the first movement (itself almost as long as Beethoven’s entire 5th Symphony), to the eerie and evocative strings and offstage flugelhorn in the third.

In the fourth movement (a slow and reflective meditation on joy and grief from a poem by Nietzsche), the orchestra was joined by acclaimed mezzo-soprano Hannah Poulsom whose voice had precisely the right balance of haunting beauty and restraint demanded by the text. The hypnotic refinement of her presentation was compounded by a lovely unobtrusive intervention by children from St John’s College School Senior House Chamber Choir, and St Catharine’s College Girls’ Choir who contributed the ‘bimm bamm’ effect of bells, a sequence described by Mahler as ‘what the angels tell me’.

For five of his six movements Mahler had originally indicated his expressive intentions for them: what the ‘flowers’, ‘animals’, ‘humanity’, ‘angels’ and [ultimately] ‘love’ all ‘tell’ him. Later he abandoned these indications – ‘no music’, he wrote, is worth anything if you first have to tell the listener what experience lies behind it,’ here sharing Walter Pater’s opinion that music is sufficient unto itself – ‘all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.’

City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra
City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra

He wrote that his 3rd Symphony ‘begins with inanimate nature and ascends to the love of God.’ In this sense, although his music is radically different, his ultimate purpose is identical with that of Joseph Haydn’s in ‘The Seasons’, composed 100 years previously. CCSO’s expression of the sixth movement’s melodic adagio, approaching God himself with its powerful climax, was a convincing conclusion to an outstanding performance.

And for members of the audience who might have thought ‘I know that tune’ in the repeated melody of movement 6 – yes, it did inspire ‘I’ll be seeing you (in all the old familiar places)’, a 1930s standard by one of the great American Songbook’s teams, Irving Kahal & Sammy Fain. Just another example of the input of classical music on popular melody. Mahler would have approved.


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