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Radiant, sonorous, full-hearted, vigorously alive performance of Mahler’s Sixth at BSO


Will the Mahler revival ever ever end? Fifty years on, the music has become (and stayed) more than just popular: it’s inescapable, so always-with-us, such a cultural “given” that, some will say, that none of us can hear – that is, really hear – his music any more. (One remedy proposes frequent and violent dousings with Bruckner, lots and lots of it. No doubt there are others.) The underlying complaint, of course, is that Mahler is not – and should never be – a product. But look around you.

Hard as it may be to imagine, the picture was once very different.

Here is Paul Affelder writing in High Fidelity magazine in 1954 of the first-ever recording of the Sixth Symphony (Vienna Philharmonia [sic] Orchestra, F. Charles Adler, cond. SPA 59/60. 2 12-in. LPs): ” The Mahler Sixth … is a long, lugubrious, bombastic work, scored for a very large orchestra – including hammer and cowbells. The musical ideas also are massive and slow-moving, and two hours of this sort of thing can be very tiring. When I heard one of the very rare concert performances of this symphony in the 1940s, I confess that I became so restless I had to leave the hall – for me, an almost unprecedented action.”

In 1943, Paul Bowles, reviewing the Second Symphony for the old Herald Tribune, was even less charitable: ” – [The] eloquence is employed almost exclusively to give tongue to a megalomaniacal passion for the grandiose. One has a suspicion that, given the proper circumstances, he might have qualified as a favorite with certain groups in the Third Reich, whose doctrine of glorification of the irrational conditions all esthetic manifestations of that country.”

Outrageous bad luck could also play a part, never more so than when Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted the US premiere of the Sixth in 1947 – evidently this was the occasion that sent Affelder rocketing towards the exits – considerations of box office took over in a really big and very American way and the Symphony found itself sharing the bill with Gershwin’s Concerto in F and its starry dedicatee Oscar Levant. That was not all. The live CBS broadcast, heard nationwide, carried the Gershwin in full, the Mahler only in part.

Tempus fugit. Hurtling through the decades, we speed past the advent of the long-playing record (by means of which a growing public gradually came to assimilate what they had been told was sick, radical, “modern” music), then into the convulsive ’60s (Mahler cast as ubiquitous, reckless, Zeitgeist shaker-up, the faithful and ever-studious Lennie in watchful attendance), and from there into a period of industrial expansion and consolidation (could any conductor now dare not include Mahler in his portfolio?) and further on then through periodic advances in sound technology (record the whole lot again, and then again, bulging catalogues be damned) into … jadedness, satiety, indifference?

Not quite, or not quite yet. The music shot down roots in some places, in other places it didn’t. The still rather tinny French-sounding BSO that Erich Leinsdorf inherited from Charles Munch never quite took to Mahler, nor they to him, and not too long after commenced an impressively long (and dozeful) period when decencies of ensemble law and order prevailed and the line in Mahler conducting mostly fell to Seiji Ozawa, who (as Peter G. Davis delicately put it in New York magazine) doesn’t have a neurotic bone in his body. (“Polite” was one of the choicer putdowns in Gramophone’s assessment of Seiji’s complete symphony cycle for Philips.) Need it be said, all this does not a great Mahler orchestra make.

But now, wonder of wonders, and without benefit of tradition, we have one.

And in the Sixth, mind you, which along with the Seventh, still ranks as rather indigestible fare compared to its more welcoming (and reliably ovation-tested) brethren.

Bruno Walter, thou shouldst be living at this hour! Had Mahler’s disciple and champion been present for the Boston Symphony’s performance Tuesday night under James Levine last weekend – radiant, sonorous, full-hearted, vigorously alive in every particle of its being – he would have had to entertain some long, grave second thoughts about a work that he frankly never liked. It was the only one of Mahler’s symphonies that he never conducted.

“The Sixth,” he wrote in his biography of Mahler, “is bleakly pessimistic: it reeks of the bitter taste of the cup of life. In contrast with the Fifth, it says ‘No,’ above all in its last movement, where something resembling the inexorable strife of ‘all against all’ is translated into music. ‘Existence is a burden; death is desirable and life hateful’ might be its motto … [The] work ends in hopelessness and the night of the soul. ‘Non placet’ is his verdict on this world; the ‘other world’ is not glimpsed for a moment.”

It is safe to say that no one in Symphony Hall on October 14 was of that opinion.

From the outset, you knew that this was a performance that would never put a foot wrong – literally. The steady footfalls and dotted rhythms of the opening were anything but a defeatist trudge, going instead with a blessèd lift (lots of upbeat from the conductor here) that summoned up a picture of rude animal health – good sturdy boots, crisp morning air, clear sky, and over it all a keen urgent sense of adventure — where to next? A classical symphony -the perfect arena for timeless struggle-and-victory narratives. Where to next? Somehow – it’s a big movement – we always knew where we were, no matter how abruptly or ominously the landscape kept changing. Levine’s subtle, seamless forwarding of event after event here seemed to come from one single all-encompassing impulse. And it never showed. This, truly, was conducting genius, the wisdom of a lifetime.

Mere verbal paraphrases of sonorous events are surely doomed to failure on occasions like these. But one must try, willy-nilly, hit or miss. The crisp, stinging rhythmic articulation was one of the elements that made this Sixth “go” in a way that it seldom does – a shining hour for this rather special band of percussionists. There was the pure, cool chording of flutes and clarinets together; the strong, sweet, noble playing of the trumpets, a horn section (nine in number) that moved as one and knew no fear. The wonderful John Ferrillo’s oboe solos. And the dark, rich, firmly centered sound of the double bass section. One hasn’t mentioned yet the warmth and naturalness brought out in lyrical passages. The “Alma” theme, which Walter told Mahler was “too sentimental,” wasn’t. He would have a heart of stone who was not moved by the Andante as Levine and the orchestra played it. And so on to the end. (Tuesday’s verdict was that the Andante should come second, the Scherzo third.) This was a symphony that said disturbing things, saw the lurking chaos beneath the surface of things, but in the artistic doing of what it did it affirmed life without reservation. Yes, in the final pages there was annihilation. But was it so very tragic?

Richard Buell, a long-time critic for the Boston Globe, produces “The Air This Week” for that newspaper. He also conducts the music-centered blog “Ear Trumpet” (

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