Thoughts after Mahler's Third Symphony

Martin CullingfordFri 19th February 2010

The BBC Philharmonic continue Manchester's cycle

“It is bonkers”, said my wife, as Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic finished performing Mahler’s Third Symphony at the Bridgewater Hall on Saturday. Luckily I know my wife likes Mahler and so meant it positively, otherwise at this point I might have been feeling a little pang of guilt at having made her sit through the previous 95 minutes.

But what if she, or anyone, didn’t know Mahler? What would they make of the Third Symphony, a work of prodigious scope, epic scale, and with a first movement longer than most other symphonies? A work which embraces the naïve, the earthy, the human, as well as the eternal and other-worldly? “It begins with inanimate nature,” wrote the composer, “and ascends to the love of God.” Schoenberg’s powerfully personal response to hearing the work, written in a letter to Mahler, was: “I saw a man in a torment of emotion exerting himself to gain inner harmony. I sensed a human being, a drama, truth, the most ruthless truth!”

I might have found out the answer a number of years ago, when I interviewed the conductor Benjamin Zander in an old-school café, the morning after he finished recording the Symphony for Telarc. Buoyant, exhilarated with a sense of journey’s end, he motioned around at the bleary-eyed breakfasters and said that, given a morning with anyone here, he could make them excited about Mahler’s Third. Given Zander’s communicative skills, exemplified by his accompanying commentaries to his recordings and his other hat as a leadership-guru, I wouldn’t have bet against it.

But back in Manchester. Around the corner from the Bridgewater Hall I fell into conversation with a Big Issue seller. Our talk ranged from AA Gill to the sonic disruption caused by the city’s new 47-storey Beetham Tower (I looked this up: apparently it hums with a frequency close to C, or 262 Hertz), and I am a little ashamed to admit that all the time, at the back of my mind, I was wondering about his story, about how he’d found himself where he was (in a way I wouldn’t have done, had I had an identical conversation with, say, someone at the Bridgewater Hall bar).

Every Big Issue vendor’s history must be etched with painful episodes of emotional torment, exertion both physical and mental – and, one hopes, camaraderie and compassion. The homeless, the vulnerable, they know better than most the fragility of life. More resonant perhaps for them are those concepts: human being, a drama, ruthless truth.

We also talked about the Bridgewater Hall – he’d been once thanks to a Hallé violinist, a regular customer, who had given him a ticket. He didn’t know Mahler, but if he had have heard the Third Symphony, I wonder what he’d have made of it?

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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