Recklessly ambitious and dangerously expansive, Mahler's Symphony No. 3 is a paean to nature that's composed with so much pagan relish and Germanic detail that you might as well be visiting a massive natural history museum: You can do it all in one day, but you may end up exhausted and overstimulated.
But not at the Philadelphia Orchestra's Thursday performance, in the final program of its Kimmel Center season. Often, Mahler-steeped conductors try to make this symphony say everything it possibly can, aided by tempos so slow the piece can last two hours. Chief conductor Charles Dutoit's hour and 45 minutes was evidence of his purposeful, cultivated selectivity among possible surface details, plus his welcomely clear floor plan.
So what emerged from the stage full of instrumentalists, choristers, and soloists was a majestic, vital, and all-around satisfying performance, but one in which you never felt mauled. How about an encore? Why not the whole thing?
Not that Mahler was kept at a safe distance, though that was a legitimate concern: The kind of elegance Dutoit brings to his core repertoire could have tidied the life out of Mahler's first-movement portrayal of the Earth bursting forth with ferocious life forms, conveyed with scoring as bare as a heartbeatlike timpani, then shooting off in so many soloistic directions you could call it "Concerto for Everybody."
Though solo moments went smashingly well, the first movement had numerous instances of unstable ensemble - though in passages that aren't supposed to interlock neatly. These weren't serious, aside from one cello-section outburst that was too un-unanimous to be worthy of the Philadelphians.
Overall, Dutoit's control of Mahler's most heterogeneous symphony was firm but not tight. The first movement went its far-flung, potentially digressive way, with Dutoit periodically reeling in everybody with a thrilling tempo accelerando just before the recapitulation and again in the final moments of the coda. Coloristic effects were sharply delineated and quite arresting. That's Dutoit for you.
The full benefits of his metrical clarity weren't apparent until the overlong third movement (with its endlessly reprised quasi-posthorn solos): Dutoit made it move in rhythmically purposeful ways, allowing the music to account for its expanse. Mostly absent were the delayed-gratification moments common in Mahler performances, where harmonies resolve with great hesitation. I missed that, but Dutoit's Viennese rubato was convincing compensation.
The string-dominated final movement, a heartfelt adagio, can feel like an endless sea of music. With Dutoit, even the smaller transformations in orchestral texture took on their own pulse, allowing the movement to build with step-by-step logic but with emotionally devastating effect. I don't know of anybody else achieving such fire-and-ice effects with Mahler. If Dutoit has an extended Mahler cycle here - wouldn't that be lovely? - commercial recordings should be made.
The vocal movements benefited greatly from mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura, who replaced Matthias Goerne in the orchestra's 2006 European tour, her immense artistic growth being most apparent in her intense projection of the Friedrich Nietzsche words. The women of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale were suitably angelic, though, through no fault of its own, the American Boychoir was only intermittently audible and certainly not visible from my partial-view seat.