Mahler's Symphony No. 3 in D minor is his longest, a six-movement ode to Nature and the World. It includes a children's choir and a contralto soloist but is largely instrumental, using a quite large orchestra complete with posthorn, harps, English horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, bass trombones, and a lot more brass than usual. Mahler's nature is not exclusively a calm pastoral scene -- it's stormy, uneasy, sometimes threatening, with mysterious rustling and twittering, yet with rays of sunlight cutting through the shadows at times.
This work had a long and confusing path from conception to completion. Mahler wrote movements II through VI in the summer of 1895. The following year, he worked on a first movement, weaving in elements of the movements he’d written in '95. That movement kept growing and growing -- at least a half an hour long, by itself it as long as all of Beethoven's First Symphony.
Mahler decided that the whole symphony was now too long, so he ditched his original finale, instead using it as the finale of his Fourth Symphony (but he didn't delete the original finale's themes that had found their way into the first movement). With the closing song gone, the symphony now ended, most unusually, with a long slow movement; it proves quite an effective move, no matter how accidental the path to that decision was.
At one stage early on, Mahler had titled the movements:
II. "What the meadow flowers tell me"
III. "What the creatures of the forest tell me"
IV. "What night tells me"
V. "What the morning bells tell me"
VI. "What love tells me," or "What God tells me"
He later deleted these titles, but they have lived on, and they still help somewhat in defining the movements' moods. The fourth is a song for contralto to a text by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the "Midnight Song" from Also Sprach Zarathustra; the fifth movement sets "Es sungen drei Engel" (Three Angels Were Singing) from the famous folk-poetry anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), with interpolations by Mahler; the forces now include not only the contralto soloist but also a boys' choir at the beginning, and later a three-part women’s choir. The work made its way into the world in dribs and drabs: the second movement was premiered in 1896, and II, II, and VI were played in 1897. Mahler made his final revisions in 1899, and the premiere of the complete, shockingly long work didn’t come until June 9, 1902 in Krefeld at a festival concert.
There is one controversial performance aspect in the fourth movement: Mahler marked some spots in the oboe and English horn solos hinaufziehen, and when Simon Rattle made his 1997 recording, he interpreted that marking as calling for an upward glissando each time. (He had heard it done on an unreleased 1960 concert recording by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Berthold Goldschmidt.) This is such a perfect Mahlerian touch, so effective in its evocation of a night bird, that now its absence brings me up a bit short. Therefore, I will comment first on some recordings that have it.
Birgit Remmert/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/CoBS Youth Chorus/Ladies of the CoBS Chorus/Simon Rattle
This recording has many merits besides those glissandi. In the same movement, contralto Birgit Remmert is outstanding, deeply felt without slipping into melodrama or histrionics. Rattle also avoids the trap of mistaking slow tempos for profundity, one he has fallen into in the past. His speeds are moderate, but tending towards the forward-pressing side of that designation. Of course, with brass as bold yet refined as he works with here -- immediately heard to good effect in the majestic opening of the first movement and the mysterious murmurings and calls that follow -- he's able to achieve weightiness without overwrought musical gestures. The recording quality is superb, especially for its realistic perspective. The sound greatly enhances the nobility of Rattle's interpretation.
Anna Larsson/City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus/London Symphony Chorus/Berlin Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado
This was the second recording I heard with the upward glissandi. Made in concert at London's Royal Festival Hall in October 1999, this offers such crucial improvements over Abbado’s 1982 set with the Vienna Philharmonic that I won’t even list the earlier one below. Even this far into his career, he continued to mature as an artist, finding greater emotional depth and revealing greater acuity in proportioning the massive structure of Mahler's longest symphony. Partly this is a matter of greater tautness. In every movement, Abbado is quicker in 1999 than he was in '82. The most dramatic difference is in the finale, which dragged in '82 at 26:38; at 21:59 with the Berliners, it's much more compelling without losing an ounce of atmosphere or tenderness. The total times are 102:45 in '82, 94:24 (omitting the separately banded applause, of course) in '99, with more than half the 8:21 difference coming in that sixth movement. It also helps that at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic, which he'd led since 1990, he had a more precise group at his command than the Vienna band. Also, soprano Jessye Norman was singing out of her range in this work (it's an alto solo), though she did a fine job of it. Anna Larsson is considerably less famous, but sounds more comfortable, and holds her own in that contemplative Nietzsche poem. The choir comes through a bit dimly in this caught-on-the-fly sound, alas; this is no sonic spectacular. It is, however, an acutely communicative rendition that, if not a top choice, is nonetheless quite satisfying.
Anne Sofie von Otter/Vienna Singverein Women's Chorus/Vienna Boys' Choir/Vienna Philharmonic/Pierre Boulez
Proof that though they can offer useful hints, timings don't tell the whole story: Boulez and Rattle have practically identical durations in the outer movements, but make such different impressions. Boulez also adopted the upward glissandi, but Otter’s practically ideal singing and all the beautiful playing of the Vienna Phil. here come to naught because Boulez sucks all the life out of this mighty work. It's one thing to take an abstract approach; it's another to make it downright bland.
Marjana Lipovsek/West German Radio Symphony Orchestra & Choir of Köln/Semyon Bychkov
This is "based on live recordings" from 2002; the sound is close and detailed, and perfectly balanced. Though Bychkov leads a German orchestra here, he gets the brass to play with the fullness of tone that Russian orchestras have, but without the overly vibrant sound that can seem merely sloppy. He gives us a broad, fully dramatic reading, highly characterful, and the glissandi here are a bit less emphasized than in the above recordings; rather than self-consciously standing out as a special point, they are fully integrated into their moments. The same movement's rich solo strings, and the emotive singing of the contralto, are also exceptionally good, and her voice emerges from the fabric of the music organically rather than being spotlighted unnaturally. The sweetly Romantic reading of the finale is positively luminous. This recording’s combination of superb modern sound and old-fashioned emotional power allied to a superbly detailed interpretation makes it my top choice for the Mahler Third.
From here on, I deal with older recordings that don't play the glissandi in the fourth movement. What follows is a somewhat haphazard assortment; I meant to cover all of the ones available to me, but ran out of time. I may add a second part to this survey, but what is here can by itself serve as a useful introduction to the most important and most recommendable Mahler Thirds (with a few others thrown in).
Martha Lipton/Women's Chorus of the Schola Cantorum/Boys' Choir of the Church of the Transfiguration/New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein, like his mentor Dmitri Mitropolous, was a strong advocate of the symphonies of Mahler in a period before audiences had accepted these epic works, and Bernstein's persuasive, highly emotional 1960s interpretations had a great deal to do with the public finally being "sold" on them. Listening to the 1961 New York Philharmonic, one is struck by how its utter virtuosity completely serves the projection of emotion. Certainly the horns and trombones outclass all their contemporary competition in the brass-heavy first movement, and the trumpet calls that crop up in several movements are bold without being vulgar. The strings are plush yet precise, the winds redolent of twilight. Nearly hitting the 100-minute mark, Bernstein frequently opts for slow tempos and makes the finale's prayerful Adagio paean to love into a sinfully luscious near-Lento, but it's such a sweet, sweet sin! Bernstein set the standard right here by wringing more drama and heartfelt emotion from its multi-faceted moods than any other conductor has.
Ortrun Wenkel/Southend Boys' Choir/London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt
Tennstedt was a conductor from the old school. While not neglecting the finer points of orchestra sound, he was noted for sweeping, dramatic interpretations carrying a big emotional wallop. This 1979 recording offers a somewhat broad -- and definitely deep -- reading. This is not to say he drags, or even that he’s particularly slow, but the effect produced is that we feel the full weight of Mahler’s conception -- his opening movement being a prime example. Tennstedt invests the music with a dark drama that’s quite thrilling without being melodramatic. His granitic structural command and masterful modulation of dynamics play a major role in his success. He’s characterfully colorful in I and III, but lushly Romantic elsewhere, notably II. Even the relatively quick concluding Adagio works: tempo is not everything; phrasing counts for as much or more. The superb sonics of these recordings and the way the London Philharmonic plays above itself (you’d never guess this is a British orchestra) complement Tennstedt's vision. Few conductors this side of Bernstein offer as much catharsis in their Mahler as Tennstedt.
Norma Proctor/Ambrosian Singers/Wandsworth School Boys Choir/London Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
For many years, even decades, this 1970 recording was one of the top recommendations. Now that there's a lot more competition, its flaws cannot be overlooked: a flugelhorn is used instead of the posthorn Mahler calls for; the orchestra can be ragged at times, especially the brass; the balances are a little odd, the timpani and brass overwhelming the strings, with the low strings especially coming up short. That said, this remains a great interpretation from an insightful Mahler conductor. In particular, Horenstein perfectly proportions the difficult expanses of the opening movement and, at the other end, gives the finale a supernal glow even in the gentlest moments, which he renders more tenderly than most.
Michelle DeYoung/Women of the May Festival Chorus/Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music Children's Choir/Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; Jesús López-Cobos
This is one of the more recommendable efforts in López-Cobos's inconsistent Mahler series. Its primary asset is its audiophile-quality sound. The end of the third movement, for instance, has such unfettered dynamic presence that it's startling even on repeat listenings. The Third is a massive work (96 minutes here) in which the conductor's tight grasp on the structure is welcome. Mezzo-soprano Michelle Young (nobody calls themselves an alto anymore, but that's the part she sings here) delivers the Nietzsche text of the fourth movement with a bit less weight than the norm, but it's a valid interpretation. The women's and children's choruses in the fifth movement achieve the proper ethereality. The first movement's faults -- a certain emotional diffidence, a rather rigid sense of line (the second movement also lacks a playfulness other conductors achieve) -- are repaired by the finale, which reaches the apotheosis this symphony demands. This 1998 recording may not be the Mahler 3 for one's private moments, but it will definitely impress guests checking out your stereo.
Agnes Baltsa/Vienna Boys Choir/Women's Chorus of the Vienna State Opera/Vienna Philharmonic/Lorin Maazel
This 1985 recording starts well, with a finely detailed, well-paced, rather sinister first movement. The inner movements, if not so compelling, are good enough, with the mezzo fine. But then Maazel gives us the slowest finale I've heard. He's aiming for transcendence, but even with the rich tones of the Vienna Phil. at his disposal, it just doesn't work.
Ruth Siewert/Knabenchor des Eberhard Ludwig Gymnasium/Mitglieder des Südfunk Chor/Südfunk Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart/Carl Schuricht
This 1960 concert recording long circulated as a bootleg until getting this official release, which is in stereo (unlike the Stradivarius boot I have). The one-dimensional sound and sonic glitches on the version I have may not be a problem on the official edition, but they couldn't have done anything about how the brass sometimes sound rather sickly (the horns are generally wobbly, especially the posthorn soloist, and the trumpets are tired by the finale). Nonetheless, Schuricht's reading is refreshingly sprightly and straightforward, though not without character. Siewert has a heavier sound – "Wagnerian" is the adjective that comes to mind -- but that may not bother everyone. I like Schuricht's relatively quick pace in the finale; he certainly doesn't rush it, and slows down for the end, thus managing to have both tautness and majesty. The overall effect is more abstract than we're used to in Mahler post-Bernstein. Not a top recommendation by any means, but an interesting alternative, especially if you feel that most other conductors drag it out too long.
Olga Alexandrova/Russian Academic Choir of the TV "Ostankino"/Moscow Boys' Capella/Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
This 1994 recording was the first Mahler Third I got, and the piece is so powerful that it spoke to me even through the muddy sound and odd balances here, and the occasionally less than stellar orchestral execution. The blatty Russian brass and Svetlanov's somewhat episodic view of the work -- though, let's face it, in all of Mahler's symphonies there is nothing more inherently episodic than this first movement -- lend the work’' first half (even the usually sweet II) a grotesqueness that’s both apt and a reminder of how important Mahler was to Shostakovich's vision of what a symphony could be. (It sometimes undercuts the mood of the finale, however.) The singing is also distinctively Russian in character; I find the mezzo's vibrato annoying, and the choir's robust tones get me thinking that Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky soundtrack got mixed in by mistake. This is no top recommendation by any stretch of the imagination, but it's so characterful -- in ways that fit the piece, which can't be said of all the entries in Svetlanov's Mahler cycle -- that it's still mostly enjoyable on its own somewhat unusual terms.
Michelle DeYoung/Women of the SFS Chorus/Pacific Boychoir/San Francisco Girls Chorus/San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
(San Francisco Symphony)
Beautifully played live in 2002-- too beautifully, too politely. Moments meant to be striking in their character are smoothed over, and with slow tempos called upon as a sort of default expressiveness, things often bog down. But those who find Mahler, or this symphony, too crude could consider this performance an improvement, although perhaps not in the fourth movement, where DeYoung's increasingly wide and wobbly vibrato becomes a distraction even compared to MTT's crawling tempo.
Ewa Podles/Cracow Philharmonic Choir/Cracow Boys' Choir/Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Antoni Wit
The superb Ewa Podles is of course an attraction on this 1995 release, but so is Wit's beautiful shaping of the finale. He's on the slow side, but keeps the lines tensile and draws an inner glow from the instruments.
Lilli Paasikivi/Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir/Tiffin Boys' Choir/Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander
This 2003 interpretation sees all of the trees, perhaps even all the leaves -- heck, all the veins in the leaves -- but misses the forest. Zander's attention to the details of the score is incredible, but seemingly distracts him from making the movements cohere, and it ends up sounding more generic than Mahlerian. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. Early this month he edited and mixed the recording of his song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach, which can be heard here.