Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), gave the first of three performances of the final concert of the 2017–18 season. The program consisted entirely of Gustav Mahler’s third symphony in D major, a work that usually runs about 100 minutes in duration. While this is not Mahler’s longest single composition, its first movement is the longest single movement that the composer wrote, usually lasting more than half an hour.
Indeed, Mahler specifically structured the symphony into two parts. The first consists only of the first movement, while the second part consists of the remaining five. Mahler originally drafted a program, of sorts. The first part was called “Pan Awakes. Summer Comes Marching In (Bacchic procession).” The movements in the second part all have titles of the form “What … Tell[s] Me,” that space filled in by “the Flowers in the Meadow,” “the Animals in the Forest,” “Humanity,” “the Angels,” and “Love.” The original plan included a movement for “the Child;” but that movement became the conclusion of the fourth symphony in G major.
1892 stock photograph of Gustav Mahler (photograph by Leonard Berlin-Bieber, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
By the time Mahler began work on this symphony in 1895, he was no stranger to the epic scale. He had already composed his three-part cantata Das klagende Lied (song of lamentation), which he completed in 1880 but revised for the following two decades. This piece involved full orchestral and vocal (both choral and solo) resources and lasted over an hour. (Mahler turned twenty in 1880.) Then there was the second symphony, completed in 1894, whose last two movements again turned to vocal resources, again both choral and solo and whose first movement amounted to a funeral march on a prodigiously prolonged scale. In this context the third symphony amounted to the next step in Mahler’s ongoing pursuit of intense expressiveness in a grandiose setting.
Since this is the month in which San Francisco Opera is giving three complete performances of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung), the timing would seem appropriate for large-scale Mahler to be presented across the street. However, it may be worth considering the wisdom of a conductor who had considerable experience in both performing and recording the major works of both Mahler and Wagner. Georg Solti once observed that, of the four Ring operas, the first, Das Rheingold (the gold of the Rhine) was the most difficult. This was because it had no intermission: four episodes unfold over the course of about two and one-half hours. Solti observed that, because the major climax came at the end of the opera, the conductor had to make sure that both instrumentalists and vocalists had not used up all of their energy prior to that climax.
Fortunately, the Mahler third provides plenty of opportunities for the players (and, for that matter, the conductor) to “recharge” between movements. Nevertheless, from the listener’s point of view, there was definitely a risk of too much energy too soon. The symphony begins with six measures of eight horns playing the opening theme in unison with a fortissimo dynamic. However, the response comes from strings, timpani, and only a few other instruments; and the fortissimo of that response was just not up to the full-bore decibel strength of those eight horns. As a result, things were already in danger of being out of whack before the first page was turned; and, while there was no shortage of compellingly expressive events that MTT delivered masterfully, there never seemed to be quite the well-planned start-to-finish conception that was realized that last time he led this piece in 2014. Indeed, the overall conception of balance never quite hit the mark; and, even more distressing, there were several noticeable glitches, which suggested that the time for final polishing never arose in the rehearsal schedule.
Things fared generally better on the vocal side. Mezzo Sasha Cooke, who had performed in 2014, returned; and the warmth of her deep tones was as compelling as ever. The interplay of the Pacific Boychoir with the four pitches of the tubular bells definitely summoned up the “angelic” connotations of the symphony’s penultimate movement. The text for this movement was the “Es sungen drei Engel” (three angels sang) poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, realized as a dialogue between the women of the SFS Chorus (prepared by Director Ragnar Bohlin) and Cooke in the role of Peter coming to terms with his sins before being admitted into heaven.
This verbal acknowledgement of salvation led without pause into the final movement, the other long movement of the symphony, although its duration is usually only a bit more than 20 minutes. There is a sense of overall stillness to this movement, as if the only sense of progress comes from the gradual increase in dynamic level. I agree with the observation of the late Michael Steinberg in the program book that “Mahler invites association with the slow movement of Beethoven’s last quartet, Opus 135.” I am one of those who feels that Beethoven is at his best in evoking stillness to the point of making time seem to stand still, and the movement Steinberg cited shows Beethoven at the top of that game. Mahler was going for the same effect; and, for the most part, MTT gave the best account of how the composer succeeded in that ambition. If there were bumps along the way, the journey through the final measures of this symphony was as compelling as ever; and the last six measures of fortissimo were downright triumphant.