Hanna Hipp (mezzo-soprano), Tiffin Boys Choir, Philharmonia Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko
Mahler Symphony no.3 in D minor (1895-6)
Royal Albert Hall, London
Thursday 27 April 2023
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Vasily Petrenko (c) Ben Wright
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra series of those Mahler symphonies featuring voices came to its conclusion this evening with the Third Symphony, the longest and most encompassing of his cycle with its trajectory ranging from the awakening of life to its divine transcendence.
The first part, comprising Mahler lengthiest purely orchestral movement, presents a stern test in terms of its overall pacing and characterization. Vasily Petrenko had its measure right from the opening fanfare, as powerfully intoned by eight horns in unison, via graphic depictions of inanimate nature (its trombone recitative balefully rendered by Matthew Gee) and its march-like reawakening, to the forceful expressive contrast Mahler invests into this extended sonata design as it advances to a joyous peroration that was superbly controlled and projected here.
Although the published score makes no mention, Mahler evidently favoured a lengthy pause before going into the second part. By allowing barely a minute to elapse, Petrenko arguably left insufficient breathing-space (for the audience if not the musicians) and so undersold the effect of what ensues. Not that this Tempo di Menuetto lacked for poise or insouciance – its chamber-like orchestration exuded a confiding intimacy, with the lingering regret at its close deftly implied. No less persuasive was the third movement, a scherzo whose capricious outer sections found purposeful accord with episodes where the offstage post-horn solos (elegantly delivered by Toby Street) unfolded without hint of indulgence; Petrenko mindful to inject a degree of danger into the final return of the opening music as this heads to its fractious close.
Once again, a slightly longer pause than Petrenko allowed might have given listeners time to settle before the closing three movements – (rightly) played without a break. Not that Hanna Hipp, in situ at stage-left, was other than assured in her contribution to the setting of (part of) Friedrich Nietzsche’s Mitternachts-Lied with its presentiment of eternal life; such unforced eloquence abetted by the hushed intensity of the RPO’s playing. The brief if pertinent setting of Es sungen drei Engel offered the necessary contrast, Hipp sounding a note of uncertainty or even doubt in the context of animated singing from the combined children’s and women’s voices. Here, too, Petrenko’s decision to use actual rather than tubular bells added greatly to the aura of child-like though never merely coy innocence with which this music is infused.
On to the finale – an adagio drawing on precedents from Beethoven and Bruckner, and which crowned this performance in all respects. If the flowing tempo that Petrenko adopted initially seemed a little passive, the seamlessness with which conflicting elements were drawn into the discourse, together with the preparation for and the shaping of each climax, on the way to its apotheosis left no doubt as to his identity with this movement. Neither was there any hint of bathos as striding timpani underpinned those closing bars with their intimations of sublimity.
A memorable performance, then, which brought out the sheer scale and ambition of Mahler’s conception while underlining the all-round excellence of the RPO near the end of its second season with Petrenko. Hopefully there will be further Mahler to come from this partnership.
You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra website. Click on the artist names for more on Hanna Hipp, Tiffin Boys Choir, Philharmonia Chorus and conductor Vasily Petrenko