Opera: All the world in a symphony

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PROMS 47-48


JUGGERNAUT SYMPHONIES have supplied this Prom season with heavy traffic. Everybody's favourite seems to be there, from Saint-Saens to Bruckner, and the latest two had the extra excuse of advertising the season's "Ascent of Man" theme. Gustav Mahler's Symphony No 3 sets out from a scenario that follows the medieval hierarchy from inanimate matter, through plants and animals and humanity, to God - or in this case, Mahler being Mahler, love of a very personal kind, one in constant need of reassurance.

The music is as sprawling as its inspiration. Bernard Haitink, who has conducted it at the Proms three times over three decades, finds more focus and intensity each time he returns. On Monday, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it was the middle movements that felt like the symphony's heart. In many performances they pass as interludes, but here the animal-life movement had a rapt quality that opened out into visionary stillness as Ann McAneney played her flugelhorn solo from the gallery.

As ever with Haitink, the sense of space came from phrasing and tonal balance, not unusual slowness, and it continued through Michelle DeYoung's monumentally serene singing of the Nietzsche poem that explicitly introduces the human element. The open tone from the City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus and the women of the BBC Symphony Chorus, free of the straining quality that British choirs can so often inflict on momentous works, moved the music deftly forward to the long-drawn anxieties and consolations of its finale.

Haitink gave it inevitability and apparent ease. There are a handful of other conductors today - Sanderling, Mehta, Boulez, Maazel, sometimes Ozawa - who can still combine fire and long-range vision. Really, it's nonsense to say the age of great conductors has passed, because there never were more than a handful at any one time. And we are beginning to see who may be the next generation's elder statesmen: they include Rattle of course and, on his showing in Nielsen with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung.

If Mahler's symphonies are philosophies, Nielsen's are film scenarios. The Fourth comes across as a thriller with final shoot-out, while the Fifth, Sunday's choice, is a suspense film with buddy element, big fight, and a couple of car-chases before the good guy wins. All it lacks is a love interest. Maybe the unsexy sound of his music is the reason why Nielsen, unlike Mahler, still hovers on the edge of the central repertoire, but he had the crowd cheering here.

Chung showed the fine art of pacing, and made a single experience out of uncommon breadth and sustained energy. The well-trained and characterful orchestra gave it quite a bright sound palette; the orchestra used its famed dark tone colours strikingly in Weber's Der Freischutz overture, again dramatically conceived with a feel for flexible phrasing and a wait- for-it silence before the end. Maria-Joao Pires characterised Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto strongly, giving the first movement sparkle despite a slow tempo, then intercutting the orchestra's brusque statements with melancholy poetry and collaborating in an impulsive and witty finale.

Sunday and Monday's Proms will be rebroadcast by Radio 3 at 2pm on 1 and 2 Sept respectively