Zubin Mehta conducted a work by Gustav Mahler – his First Symphony – at his very first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1961 in a programme which was repeated exactly 50 years later. In the following decades of his work with the orchestra, he initially conducted only a few other of the composer’s pieces. But for the fifth time together, in December 2021, they will present the Third Symphony. There are only a few works that have been performed so regularly by the Berliner Philharmoniker with the same guest conductor.
And there are probably only a few works with comparably global ambitions. At almost 100 minutes, the symphony is not only particularly long, but also has a truly universal theme: in two parts and a total of six movements, it depicts nothing less than humankind’s relationship to nature. Mahler himself described how in the first movement “life gradually breaks forth, developing step-by-step into ever-higher forms of life: flowers, animals, human beings, up into the realm of spirits, to the angels”. These “steps” were also named in the initially planned movement titles. The composer later discarded this programme but, it nevertheless contains valuable clues to the dramaturgy of the work: for example, the world of mountains, plants and animals is described by the instruments of the orchestra in Mahler’s “sound of nature” before the human voice is heard for the first time with the appearance of man in the fourth movement. And when the mezzo-soprano in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche sings of “Herzeleid” and “Weh”, the originally dedicated to love hymn of the finale tells of how man alone can be redeemed from his sorrowful isolation.
In this performance, Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker are supported by the ladies of the Rundfunkchor and the boys of the Staats- und Domchor Berlin. The mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau – ensemble member of Bavarian State Opera and an outstanding Wagner interpreter – makes her debut with the Philharmoniker.