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A Symphonic World on Show: Andris Nelsons and the BSO Perform Mahler’s Sixth

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The program reviewed in this piece was performed at Symphony Hall on October 20, October 21, and October 22, 2022

Silence filled the hall as Andris Nelsons’s outstretched hands hung over the conductor’s podium. A smattering of stray claps echo from the back, crescendoing into a thunderous rumble. The ground stirred, awakening from what seemed like an eternal slumber. The audience, transfixed, was finally released from the bondage of transcendental music.

Replete with dream-like colors and textures, Thursday, Oct. 21’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony at the Boston Symphony Orchestra was indeed a spellbinding affair. Yet, the Boston Symphony Orchestra did not succeed at achieving the highest aim of all symphonic compositions — exposing a composer’s revelation to the world. Mahler’s Sixth has garnered the subtitle “Tragic” for a reason, and Nelsons’s interpretation of the work — though aurally satisfactory — did not convincingly showcase the intensity of expression or compositional nuance of the score.

In many respects, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is a torturous work. Over the course of four relentless movements, the composer continually deprives the listener of a sure-footed resolution. Instead, he forcefully oscillates from moments of heavenly lyricism to musical lines choked with angst, mapping the entire scope of human conflict and resignation. The work’s powerful finale, marked by originally three, but later revised to two, hammer blows compels the listener into accepting the futility of struggle. No tune, no matter how triumphant, eclipses fate's call. The legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler thus considered Mahler’s Sixth to be “the first nihilistic work in the history of music.” Likewise, German-born conductor and composer Bruno Walter — a close friend and advocate of Mahler’s work — wrote that the Sixth “ends in hopelessness and the dark night of the soul.”

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Throughout the evening’s performance, the orchestra crafted wonderful phrases with natural beginnings but lost the tragic impulse of Mahler’s music as a result. Nelsons thus produced an agreeable and inoffensive listening experience at the cost of fully replicating the tension within Mahler’s composition.

The orchestra’s performance of the first movement — marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo, Heftig aber markig — was riveting in some moments, and unconvincing in others. The ensemble attacked the introductory march of the first movement with trademark ferocity, perfectly capturing its rhythmic urgency and foreboding tone. The movement’s delicate cowbell interlude was simply transcendental; for a moment, the Austrian Tyrol came to life inside Symphony Hall to the accompaniment of a weightless tremolo from the violins.

Yet, Nelsons’s first rendition of the lyrical theme following the darkly colored march — known by some critics as the “Alma” melody — lacked the intensity of phrasing demanded by such an aching expression of love. The development section felt most in need of tightening; the tension within each phrase felt released too early, like a bow let loose before being fully drawn. Finally, in the movement’s concluding A major chorale, the soaring brass section masked the strings and percussion, as if coating the thickly-layered musical canvas with murky varnish.

The second movement of the night — the Scherzo: Wuchtig — was the most distasteful element of the entire performance. Nelsons liberally chose a slower tempo than usual, forsaking any sense of musical impulse. The orchestra performed the incessant introductory theme with vigor. Yet, the phrasing felt heavy-handed. The brush-like strokes of the strings, slowed to Nelsons’ preferred lumber, lacked any observable tension. The trio —marked Altväterisch (“old-fashioned”) — was unforgivably weighty. What Alma Mahler described as representing the “arrhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand” became a bumbling bar dance between two drunkards. There was no boyish buoyancy in Nelson’s interpretation.

On the contrary, the orchestra’s performance of the third movement —the Andante moderato — approached musical perfection. The string section conveyed the ideal mixture of lyricism and direction in the wandering opening theme. From this breathtaking starting point, Nelsons proceeded to reveal each layer of the composition with stunning precision and effortlessness. Every musical phrase felt tight, but not overly so. Nelsons’ forte is crafting natural, singing lines, and he did so in the development section with finesse. At the climax of the movement — a richly textured recapitulation of the main theme — the orchestra seemed to lift the audience above reality, even for one transient movement. The ensemble revealed infinitesimal spaces between each yearning note and fully-fleshed phrase. Peering into Mahler’s fantasy through this orchestral peephole, a symphonic world seemed to reveal itself. This was music-making at the highest level.

Nelsons rendered the Finale — Mahler’s fatalistic last hurrah — with dynamism. Yet, much clarity was left to be desired. Throughout the movement, the strings snarled with palpable ferocity, but the sound signature itself could have benefited from more articulated bow strokes. Although the three false climaxes — each capped with a deafening hammer blow — resonated brilliantly, the intervening contrapuntal textures failed to deliver the necessary definition. The symphony’s end, however, was striking. The brass and woodwinds’ repetition of the recurring A minor triad was spin-chilling. A phantasmic pizzicato from the strings floated the movement to a satisfying, transparent close. Yet, one has to wonder, could it have been just a bit softer?

Students interested in attending a BSO concert can obtain tickets for most concerts from the Office for the Arts at 74 Mt. Auburn Street on Tuesdays at 12 P.M, or with a BSO College Card, available on their website.

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