Despite being widely regarded as an Austrian composter, Gustav Mahler originally came from the modern day Czech Republic, the then Eastern Bohemian arm of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Therefore, the composer is an obvious choice for an orchestra so strongly dedicated to promoting the richness of Czech culture. Well known by many for their performances and recordings of some of the world’s best-loved film scores, Prague Symphony Orchestra are no strangers to colouring the vast spectrum of human emotion. Therefore, Mahler’s Third, while seemingly apt, is a bold and daring choice for the orchestra.
The symphony is a gargantuan marathon, both in length and subject matter. One of the longest symphonies ever written, Mahler seeks to provide an answer to the meaning of life. After exploring nature, Nietzsche, and his beloved hotbed of inspiration, the religious poetry collection, ‘The Youthful Magic Horn’, Mahler eventually resorts to love, in the soaring final movement.
The orchestra excels throughout, sharing the stage with a host of guests. The fourth movement showcases mezzo-soprano, Ester Pavlů, whose rich tone nestled amongst the strings for a quiet and confessional, yet well balanced performance of Nietzsche’s ‘Midnight Song’. But the star of the afternoon’s performance was undoubtedly the unaccredited post-horn player, first head in the third movement, singing over the perfectly delivered accompaniment from the strings. Unseen from the wings, the sonorous tones of the horn resonated around Usher Hall with an utterly ethereal quality, emphasising Mahler’s envisioned vast woodland of creatures. The post-horn generated a sublime stillness that transfixed not only the audience but also the performers on stage that beamed when it first sounded. The fifth movement brought together the orchestra, Pavlů, Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, Edinburgh University Choir, and the National Youth Choir of Scotland. In this retelling of the apostle Peter’s journey to heaven, the choirs articulate ‘What the Angel’s Tell Me’ with lively energy. NYCOS particularly performed with delightful aplomb, holding their own amongst the other chorus members.
Under the baton of Pietari Inkinen, Prague Symphony Orchestra is an undoubtedly a consummate orchestra and this is a well-executed performance. But the orchestra does not dare to let itself dazzle or succumb to the sheer emotional might of Mahler’s work, especially in the final movement, ‘What Love Tells Me’. As Mahler paints the view of the soaring peaks seen from his Alpine cabin in Steinbach, Inkinen leads the orchestra fluidly. However, this fluidity prevents them from toying with the emotion that Mahler characterised it with, instead running too strongly with Mahler’s performance instruction ‘calm’, forgetting his other guidance, ‘deeply felt’. It’s a spotless performance of a movement that yearns for emotional liberation.
Mahler’s emotions, his passion for the seasons, the poetry that inspired him, and his gratitude for alpine scenery feel palpable in this symphony that is performed so flawlessly by the orchestra and its guests. So flawlessly, it jolts to a sadly staid conclusion that denies the performance the top marks it deserves.
Reviewer: Melissa Jones
Reviewed: 10th November 2019
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★