Big is beautiful
Jeremy Pound enjoys a very large helping of Mahler at the Royal Albert Hall
With our regular Proms correspondent Nick Shave taking a brief break, the enviable task of attending and reporting on Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Mahler Third Symphony fell to yours truly.
Following Nick’s warnings in his last Proms Diary over the dangers of turning up late for a 7pm Prom, I was taking no chances. OK, so arriving at the Royal Albert Hall at 11.30am was maybe a touch cautious, but it did guarantee a superb spot in the Arena.
Mahler’s Third is often believed to be the longest symphony of all. In fact, it’s not – that honour falls Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony (some might say that simply makes Mahler the longest symphony worth hearing, but I’ll leave that opinion aside for now…). However, at 100 minutes long, spread over six movements – the first of which is an astonishing 40 minutes – the Mahler’s still quite some beast.
And ‘beast’ is the operative word in this, Mahler’s great depiction of nature. Part of the challenge for any conductor is to conjure up that feeling of vast space provided by the great outdoors. The composer’s requirements for off-stage musicians helps here, as of course do the cavernous spaces of the Royal Albert Hall. Talk to any conductor about performing this symphony (and, in fact, the Second too) and they’ll assure you that a lot of rehearsal time is spent working out where to place those off-stage forces – perhaps Runnicles could have had the post-horn a little more distant?
That, though, was my only gripe in terms of orchestral balance and dynamics. Much of the playing, meanwhile, was exceptional, the exquisitely managed string pianissimos that accompanied mezzo Karen Cargill in the fourth movement a particular case in point.
And Runnicles got the pacing spot on. The musical hotchpotch that is the first movement never felt disjointed or episodic and, while there were thrills along the way, enough was always kept in reserve to make the sixth movement’s grand apotheosis as thrilling as it should be.
Asked in the programme how he coped with the pressure of managing such a massive work, Runnicles compared his task – the concentration, the energy needed – to that faced by French tennis player Nicolas Mahut when, earlier this year, he had to hold serve 67 times to stay in what turned out to be the longest match ever at Wimbledon. Mahut, alas, lost that match. Runnicles and the BBC SSO, in contrast, emerged triumphant.
Prom 24: Mahler's Symphony No. 3 in D minor
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano); Edinburgh Festival Chorus (women's voices); Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles
Jeremy Pound is deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine