Review: The Philadelphia Orchestra Performs Mahler’s Longest — and Greatest — Symphony

Although not frequently performed, the Symphony No. 3 is Gustav Mahler’s most encompassing work, the piece which best exemplifies his life and career. Yannick Nézet-Séguin led a magnificent performance of it during the closing week of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2016-17 season.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Symphony No. 3 contains the greatest balance between anguish and love and its finale is optimistic. It is less gloomy than Mahler’s later works in which he confronted his own failing health, the death of his young daughter, and the infidelity of his wife.

Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation was passionate and intense. With a huge orchestra plus the calm presence of mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, 33 members of The American Boychoir and 38 women of The Philadelphia Symphonic Choir, this was one of the most impressive concerts in recent memory. Without an intermission, the piece ran one hour and 44 minutes — the longest of any known symphony.

I admire Mahler and identify with him because one side of my family, like his, was Jewish from Central Europe. I have enjoyed spending time in his birthplace and the Vienna where he became famous. Yet I am sometimes put off by his recurrent anxiety and his grandiose view that his music represents “the whole world.”

Mahler had a high degree of self-absorption. He repeatedly thought about what nature meant to him: “What the flowers in the meadow tell me. What the creatures in the forest tell me. What love tells me.” And Mahler labeled parts of his symphonies with that detail.

Of course, Beethoven put labels into his Symphony No. 6: “Scene by the brook. Thunderstorm,” etc. But Mahler’s were much more personal. Richard Strauss wrote tone-poems with storylines, but his were heroic, and Berlioz wrote a symphony about his love life. Only Mahler wrote about anguished torture. This enthralled some listeners while it alienated others.

Mahler was not as popular in his own time as he is today. He was resisted partly because he was an outsider from Bohemia and a Jew; and additionally because his music was permeated by his personal angst.

Gustav Mahler.
Gustav Mahler.

He went against the grain in an era where society, unlike Mahler, was proud and confident. Stefan Zweig, in his book The World of Yesterday, wrote “There was progress everywhere — new theaters, libraries and museums, new cultural forms. What could interrupt this rapid ascent, dampen the élan which constantly drew new force from its own story? A wondrous carefree spirit reigned.”

Then came the Roaring Twenties. The 1930s, despite the Great Depression, were permeated with Rooseveltian optimism. The 1939 World’s Fair touted “The World of Tomorrow.” The end of World War II was triumphant. Rhapsodizing about the atomic age, the Las Vegas Review-Journal printed that mankind might be “on the threshold of one of those new eras which was ushered in by the invention of the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, harnessing electricity, discovering the principle of radio.”

With the birth of the Cold War, people realized that such optimism was misplaced. Poet W. H. Auden in 1947 wrote about “The Age of Anxiety” and Leonard Bernstein wrote a symphony with that title. In that milieu, Mahler’s symphonies gained popularity and Bernstein became Mahler’s most visible champion.

After the Philadelphia Orchestra concert, I re-watched the video of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Mahler Third with the Vienna Philharmonic, and even though Bernstein is indelibly identified with Mahler, Yannick’s rendition was more passionate and sumptuous. The sound of the Philadelphians was bolder. In particular, Yannick’s tympani had more power, his horns more sonority and his strings more presence. This was a historic performance. I hope the world will get a chance not only to hear, but to see video of this occasion.

The Third starts with a fanfare by massed horns, interrupted by blasting tympani. Mahler called this movement “A Summer Morning’s Dream” and, surprisingly, his view of summer was darker than what we normally associate with that season. It has more clashing colors and dissonance than in the later parts of the symphony. This was his vision of the primordial stirring of nature. Later, a solo violin portrays the chirping of birds. We hear a notable trumpet solo by David Bilger, then a series of joyous marches.

Part II is gentle and tender. Mahler wrote about it: “Eternal love spins its web within us, over and above all else.” Yet he felt self-pity: “Behold the wounds I bear.” Writing a calm and nostalgic scherzo section, Mahler said he was thinking of a poem by Nikolas Lenau in which a man contemplates his dead friend (what an intrusive thought!) and “we once again feel the shadow of lifeless nature.”

Karen Cargill. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Karen Cargill. Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra.

The brief mezzo-soprano solo by Cargill includes the words, “I have broken the Ten Commandments. I must go away and weep bitterly.” A chorus of women answers, “Pray to the Lord. Love only the Lord. Thus you will attain heavenly joy!” These Christian pronouncements were added just before Mahler converted to Catholicism, to silence critics who opposed his hiring as music director at the Court Opera in Vienna.

The closing movement is a slow adagio with a broad and comforting melodic line. A majestic chorale of brass instruments rises to a triumphant finish. A special moment was the pregnant pause before the quiet entrance of the cello section about an hour and a half into the symphony. And the culmination was a protracted D-major final chord where intense string playing was on an equal level with a huge brass chorale. We saw fiddlers sawing intensely, crisscrossing and overlapping each other. This is a technique which Leopold Stokowski introduced when he was music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to produce fuller sound, but we rarely see it anywhere these days.

As the late violinist Herman Weinberg told me, “Before then, all string players bowed up and down in synchronization with their section leader. Stokowski had us bow independently.” And conductor Francis Madeira told me, “Use plenty of bow when you want a tremendous amount of what you might call juice, and when you run out of bow, change it.”

This produced extraordinary volume and unbroken length of the final chord with Nézet-Séguin. Outstanding solos were by flute Jeffrey Khaner, oboe Richard Woodhams (especially when accompanying the mezzo aria), horn Jennifer Montone, trombone Nitzan Haroz, and trumpet David Bilger as mentioned earlier.

After the symphony came an addition which deserves high praise for its concept, but criticism for its execution. A “Postlude” organ recital was scheduled, utilizing different soloists and compositions on different nights. At the performance I attended, Jeremy Flood beautifully played a Prelude and Fugue by J. S. Bach (BWV 541) that was in the same G-major key as Mahler’s symphony, followed by a Brahms Organ Prelude that quoted a tune from the fourth movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, a melody also referenced by Mahler. This was a great idea.

On the other hand, the symphony ended at 9:52 p.m. and organist Flood did not come onstage until 10:19. Many attendees complained that they couldn’t wait around that long, and left. The long wait broke the mood and was an unnecessary imposition on audiences’ time.

Running Time: One hour and 44 minutes, with no intermission.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo courtesy the orchestra.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo courtesy the orchestra.

Mahler: Symphony No. 3 performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting; Karen Cargill mezzo-soprano; Women of the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir; and The American Boychoir, performs through May 21, 2017 at Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts – 300 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets to future concerts and shows, call the box office at (215) 893-1999, or purchase them online.


  1. We drove up from DC to hear this performance and the review captures the concert very well. However, I must make one correction. The posthorn solo is not played by the French Horn but by the trumpet player offstage. David Bilger the superb Principal of the PO rendered this solo with great beauty and musicality. The Principal Horn was just great all evening, but on Saturday the brass did get slightly fatigued and a few errant notes emerged; but overall the orchestra was absolutely magnificent. One last comment: we were not enamored with the Contraalto She did note emote and perhaps was a bit too calm for out taste. But that is subjective. All in all a fabulous evening.


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