In one of the most often quoted lines by Gustav Mahler, the composer declares that, "To me, 'symphony' means constructing a world with all the technical means at one's disposal." That applies, more or less, to all of his symphonies, but he was speaking about No. 3, the subject of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's latest program.
And what a world he constructed in this astonishing, 100-minute score. Everything of human existence -- profound, banal, sentimental, ironic, scary, reassuring -- seems crammed into this symphony. Something of the divine, too; the finale suggests a steady climb up from the temporal world and right through the gates of the eternal.
Of course, it is possible to hear much less in the Third. Prominent English composer William Walton may have spoken for many when he said of the work, "It's all very well, but you can't call that a symphony."
On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, BSO music director Marin Alsop made it plain that she believes in every note of the piece, and it sounded as if the orchestra could not have agreed more.
The turnout wasn't great (maybe all the talk of a "wintry mix" scared some folks off), and the performance had a few brief moments of spottiness in articulation or intonation. But the intensity of expression, from conductor and players alike, resulted in a thoroughly persuasive, absorbing account of this ever-astonishing symphony.
(This sure was an enormous improvement over the performance the BSO gave in 2002 with Yuri Temirkanov conducting, when the playing was oddly sloppy, the interpretation oddly distant, and when -- shudder -- an intermission was inserted after the first movement.)
The sprawling first movement, Mahler said. "almost ceased to be music; it is hardly anything but sounds of Nature." It opened up on Thursday with a truly majestic, finely blended sound from the massed horns, and Alsop gave their melody plenty of breathing room.
The conductor maintained a great balance of tension and breadth as the movement proceeded, ensuring that the quietest moments spoke as powerfully as the wildest.
Alsop's gentle rubato and the orchestra's wonderful tonal transparency made the Menuet glow. That delicacy continued where it counted in the third movement -- the violins produced a truly gossamer sound. And Andrew Balio sculpted the offstage post horn solo eloquently.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton's sumptuous timbre and nuanced phrasing proved impressive in the fourth movement's "Midnight Song." She and the combined Peabody Children's Chorus and women of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society produced a beguiling effect in the symphony's penultimate section.
The long, spacious finale found Alsop in remarkable form, taking her time so that the hymn-like themes registered deeply, and maintaining a telling pulse even when the music was at its most still.
The strings responded with particularly radiant playing; the brass and winds offered great subtlety (Emily Skala's flute solo floated exquisitely) until, with the timpani providing thunderous punctuation, the whole orchestra relished the rapturous coda.