You might think that a 105-minute work that demands a huge ensemble – with a mezzo-soprano soloist and boys' and women's choruses added to the mix – would be reserved only for special occasions. But no: The massive Third has become standard subscription series fare. It's not hard to see why. For a conductor eager to test his or her mettle against this longest and most diverse of the Mahler symphonies, the prospect of doing so with the world's mightiest Mahler orchestra must be irresistible.
The latest conductor to take on this early Mahler opus here is Semyon Bychkov, whose performance drew a predictably clamorous ovation on Thursday night at Symphony Center from an audience not particularly silent in the duration.
Mahler's six movements – the first of which runs a good 35 minutes, longer than any Classical symphony – are an unprecedented sound-world that takes all of existence as its purview, beginning with paeans to nature and ending with a slow, radiant finale meant to evoke heaven and God's love.
Any interpreter who takes to heart the emotional trajectory of this long and demanding work, as Bychkov most assuredly did on Thursday night, will inevitably push musicians to their limits. And I'm afraid those limits were breached in shockingly poor playing from the horns and trumpets (the principal horn and trumpet in particular), a major blot on an otherwise intelligent and absorbing performance.
Bychkov's command of the huge outer movements that are the pillars of this magnificent edifice was especially striking. The nine horns proclaimed the arrival of summer with imposing force, answered by the clipped thud of percussion. Where other conductors treat the opening movement, with its starts, stops and bucolic digressions, as a layered span, Bychkov gave each episode its own weight, color and character, sustaining the line, or at least the illusion of line, with a steady but flexible hand.
The briefest of pauses led into the second part of the symphony. The flower minuet was gently handled, Bychkov resisting the urge to pull phrases around too much. He drew supple and rich-toned playing from the strings and nicely focused responses from the woodwinds, even if the E-flat clarinet tended to protrude from the texture.
The sunny pastoral mood of the Scherzando movement, with its imbedded Austrian folk dances, also was vividly drawn. For some reason principal trumpet Christopher Martin suffered a train wreck in the offstage posthorn solo, and this dragged the movement down to the mundane.
In her second CSO appearance within a fortnight, mezzo Bernarda Fink delivered the setting of Nietzsche's “Midnight Song” with deep feeling, and the combined voices of the Chicago Symphony Chorus women and Anima—Young Singers of Greater Chicago sang like Botticelli angels in the fifth movement, a setting of a poem from the folk collection “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” that anticipates a joyous afterlife in heaven.
Infinite patience is required of any conductor navigating the 25-minute expanse of the final movement. Bychkov allowed the lines to breathe and grow with a wonderful subtlety of pulse, never pressuring the phrases nor allowing rhythm to become flaccid, as was sometimes the case under Bernard Haitink here in 2006. The long-awaited peroration was overwhelming in its effect, as it should be.
Although seizing on individual details may be beside the point, it was impossible not to come away admiring the solid solo playing of principal trombone Jay Friedman and concertmaster Robert Chen. One can only hope the brass section gets its act together in time for the weekend concerts.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $28-$243; 312-294-3000, cso.org.