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Sexy Berg, Affecting Strauss, and Resplendent Mahler by BSO


Juanjo Mena led an exciting tour of Gustav Mahler’s time and influences in the Tanglewood Shed on July 31.The Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of this formidable Spanish conductor, affirmed his visionary utilization of the entire string, woodwind, brass, and percussion sections as instrumental voices, first mediated through Alban Berg’s whirling Three Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6, and, directly, in the concert closer, the pleasing and accessible Mahler Symphony No. 4 in G, with soprano Hei-Kyung Hong. In between, Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, presented with touching grace by Hong, punctuated the Mahler conversation with complementary visions of inevitable mortality. The piece bows in the direction of his and Mahler’s shared inspiration, Richard Wagner. This was incisively intelligent programming (with thanks to the recovering James Levine, whom Mena replaced as the evening’s conductor) that gave insight into the energies and emotions that powered the European beginnings of modern music.

In his book, Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link, Theodore Adorno, his student and biographer, noted how, in Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, “his most Mahlerian score became the most complicated one he ever wrote. In wild abandon, with multi-note chords and friction between countless simultaneous voices, he far surpasses in sheer provocation everything which moderns had until then been capable. The turning point in Berg’s style is at once its moment of greatest shock. . .Under the glass plates of form, large as a house, in the wild distorted motley array of orchestral planes, those fragments awaken to a second and catastrophic significance. . .If mediocre humanity disintegrates into banal illusion, then the form that reflects that illusion is magnified to inhuman and terrifying proportions. The hammer blow in the third piece symbolizes that . . .in that scenic moment when the man asserts his full strength, only to be immediately smothered in the sphere of banality. With a giant’s fear, Berg piles them one on top of the other. It is fear that they breed.”

The 24-year-old Berg, moved by the premiere of Mahler’s fourth Symphony in 1909, approached the composer afterward. Mahler gave him his baton. According to Henry-Louis de La Grange, in Volume Four of his Mahler biography Gustav Mahler: A New Life Cut Short (1907-1911), Berg was so devoted to Mahler that he joined the vigil at the sanatorium where Mahler was hospitalized before he died. His wife was asleep when he returned home after Mahler’s death. The following morning, on awakening, she asked after Mahler. Berg, speechless, pointed at his black tie.

If there was one section that captured the sense of life’s struggles and death’s rigors in the Three Pieces, it was the brass. Never has this reviewer heard such stunning section work and solo brilliance as in the build-up to first, huge climax early in the first movement, with Thomas Rolf’s agonized high trumpet over broadly-bowed contrabasses, and Mike Roylance’s rocketing tuba, across the entire range, with earth-shattering pedal tones and keening upper-register cries of distress as the whole brass section clamored in sympathy. Then, with muted trombone, violins in tremolo, and muted trumpet, the volume ramped down, and a three-note descending fragment, Gb, E, Db, was tossed around. In scary symmetry the opening rumbles of bass drum and tympani returned, and the movement steamrolled into a waking state, as if after a nightmare.

A pretty, perfectly blended French horn choir supported Rolf’s muted trumpet at the beginning of the “Round Dance,” or Reigen, as Berg called the second movement. After an echo by the woodwind choir, the cellos swooped up and down, and a flirtatious wisp of melody by concertmaster Malcolm Lowe led into a flagrant oompah-pah of a weirdly inverted waltz, with the ooms in the strings and the pah-pahs on the drums and cymbal. Sexy madness! (Reigen was also the title of a 1900 play by Arthur Schnitzler that examined German sexual mores across boundaries of social class. It subsequently led to the so-called “Reigen scandal,” in which Schnitzler was attacked by politicians and in the press as a “Jewish pornographer.” In her article, “Truth, Gender, and Sex: Berg’s Schnitzler and Motivic Processes in‘Reigen’,” in the Journal of Musicological Research, Christina Gier observed inflections in the music that reflect this text, based on Berg’s own thoughts as written in his diaries and his personal copy of Schnitzler’s play. “Close musical analysis, informed by literary insight” she wrote, “reveals that the ‘liberation of the sensual’ is central to Berg’s compositional process. Despite previous assertions of a structural correlation of music to play, Berg’s “Reigen” emerges as distinctly different from the play, in that it musically articulates the liberation of the sensual, while the satire can only imply it.”)

Washes of muted brass followed the short waltz, and sparkling, solo harp arpeggios introduced the next bit of dancehall passion, a string tune of which Mantovani would have been proud, if it hadn’t lasted for but 10 seconds before giving way to Mike Roylance’s tuba.

This was not the honeyed and limpid tuba of the “Bydlo” movement in Pictures at an Exhibition that melted the hearts of the huge crowd that came to hear YoYo Ma perform the following afternoon, and winning Roylance the second – the second! – stand-up acknowledgement from Maestro Meno. (Trust this tuba-playing reviewer: orchestral tubists toot their entire tenures without tasting this tender treat.) No, this was Roylance on the warpath, unburdening himself of a rapid cannonade of up-and-down chromatic arpeggios in precisely articulated fortissimo, leaping over howling horns and brass and scaring the Bejesus out of the assembled sinners.

Next, two trumpets in thirds waltzed into a dramatic accelerando with high horns wailing, clarinet sobbing, and a rapid, repeated high figure in the woodwinds. The door was opening, and the devil might be standing there! This frightful section closed with a short, legato, very sad song expressed touchingly by Rolfs with mute in hand, then whispered by high-register flutes, and more prominently, piccolo and oboe. But that judging tuba blasted back the last chastisement, a stentorian, downward roll of sfortzandos. All that was left was the pitiful humanity of a quiet, solitary major third in the French horns. Repentance, maybe.

Sounding a bit like the duck in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, the final movement, “March,” began with a saucy, rhythmic phrase in the English horn that led into a jazzy, chromatic riff by the trombone choir. Roylance’s high tuba led the dancers through shifting, chromatic harmonies with xylophone sprinklings into a brass extravaganza, with choirs of horns, and whole sections of the orchestra picking up the martial rhythm.

The drums went bang, the cymbals clanged, and the horns they blazed away, but this was no McNamara’s band. It was a blazing symphony in overdrive, with screaming trumpets, bursts of tympani, chattering xylophone, high register horns, then suddenly the whole band directed on a downward melodic legato line over the strutting tuba.

All this calamitous chaos was beautifully conducted, with clear and confident cues, and tempered gestures. Juanjo Mena gave every impression of knowing and loving this challenging work without making a big deal of its implicit dramatics. He drew from the orchestra one of the most committed performances in memory. (Considering all the repertory they have to cover in so few days, with so few rehearsals, it is an impressive tribute to their professionalism that they continue to produce at such a high level for an unexpected parade of guest conductors.)

In the end, there were more blasting hits from the bass drum, swirling fragments of melody, glockenspiel resonances of marching bands, a repeated low tuba Db, followed by repeated tuba Bb’s, the minor third signifying from below that there was no hope ahead, and then a crying theme that could have been a Wagner motif, played in unison by several sections, a huge crash of the gong, and, suddenly, a dramatic decrescendo, with harp chords over a withering, descending trombone line, over a continuous, rapid underpinning of pizzicato violins, beginning low and keening upward to a high repeated figure.

Anxiety ran unabated, until bang went the tympani and bass drum, ending the story of striving, embarrassed impulse, unfulfilled yearnings for release, and inexpressible human emotion, all plucking the strings of your heart. This was real stuff, but highly allusive and allegorical. The effect was confusing, devastating, but enormously satisfying, a visit to the devil with a pass back to the simple pleasures of daily life.

If the Berg was allusive, the Strauss songs could hardly have been more explicit in their touching, accepting reflections on life’s passing. The four last songs are entitled “Spring,” “September,” “Going to Sleep, and “At Sunset.” Moved by the poem, At Sunset, by Joseph von Eichendorf, this was the composer’s final completed major work. Setting three texts of Hermann Hesse and one by von Eichendorff for soprano and orchestra, Strauss included vivid French horn supports in each movement, beckoning the memory of his father, Franz Strauss, a renowned horn player, and bowing to his wife, Pauline de Ahna, a gifted soprano, the sound of whose voice gave comfort to Strauss during his last illness.

“Spring,” presented thoughtfully and with soft-edged nuances by Hei-Kyung Hong, radiant in a sparkling, low-cut, mauve gown, ascends upward in long circles around an Eb tonality, then subsequently, through a gorgeous progression in the strings, with a poignant connection to the verse: “In shadowy crypts I dreamt long of your trees and blue skies of your fragrance and birdsong. Now you appear, in all your finery, shining brilliantly, like a miracle before me.” and at the end of the poem, “You recognize me, you entice me tenderly. All my limbs tremble at your blessed presence!” Here, there is a glimpse of the stunning polytonality of the Presentation of the Rose in Der Rosenkavalier and, a diminuendo in which the tonality shifts from Bb to Ab, and a splendid, rising whole tone progression that returned to Bb tonality for the entire orchestra. Splendidly suited to the piece, Ms. Hong’s voice and subtle gestures were knowing and mature, and the effect was true, unsentimental, and moving.

The text of “September,” also by Hesse, begins “The garden is in mourning. Cool rain seeps into the flowers.” After a lush expression of Db tonality in the orchestral introduction, a lovely flow of woodwinds and high strings pushed the melody of the song upward to a plangent high Ab, and then a deepening sadness expressed by Ms. Hong in the descending melody. Here was the quintessence of late romanticism, capturing in sound the feeling of “Summertime shudders, quietly awaiting his end.” Maestro Mena coordinated the melodic lines instrumental dynamics in a marvelously gracious way, turning partly to face the singer on his left, evoking in his expressions and gestures the emotions of the verse and the music, even as his baton, sweeping gently across his music stand, signaled the changing intensity of Strauss’s marvelous orchestration.

The French horns played a powerful role in the drama that followed, and as the soprano line descended to F and then Bb and down, and the horn choir led the harmonic progression down to Gb and an F minor sustained with arpeggiate figures to the last stanza of the poem: “For just a while he tarries beside the roses, yearning for repose. Slowly he closes his weary eyes.” This was a ravishingly beautiful moment.

Then a gorgeous French horn melody brought woodwinds and strings together in a stirring, final Eb chord. This was sublime match of poetry, music, and orchestration and – equally so— singer, conductor, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at its very best. With all respect to James Levine, who conceived this program and knows it so well, his players and guest conductor served him well.

The text of the third song, also by Hesse, “Going to sleep,” begins “Now that I am wearied of the day, I will let the friendly, starry night greet all my ardent desires like a sleepy child.” From the short introduction, where the contrabasses bowed a deep Db and C, and the cellos and violin sounded the black-note descending melody, the verse began, with massed high woodwind voices alternating with the string section counterpoising splendidly the starry night and the ardent desires. The sleepy child’s foggy perceptions were expressed in hushed tones by the soprano and exquisitely embellished in an extended, quiet violin solo by Malcolm Lowe. This was a lullaby, over simple chords in the cellos, horns, woodwinds, and basses, soon transmuted into a different state of consciousness. To “Hands, stop all your work. Brow, forget all your thinking. All my senses now yearn to sink into slumber,” the melodic lines reached slowly upward, and the soprano’s melody, graced with languid arpeggiate intervals, yielded a hypnotic effect, a suspension of active reflection on the inevitable end of life.

Ms. Hong ascended to a high Db before the melody continued, over the horn section. She gave the words “And my unfettered soul wishes to soar up freely into night’s magic sphere to live there deeply and thousand fold,” a convincing, warm humanity. A variation of this melody re-appeared in the violins, braced by the entire choir of horns, descending down to a low Db as the violins bowed a downward arpeggio to a low F, joining and sustaining the final, moving, Db chord.

In the introduction of the final song, “At Sunset,” set to Eichendorff’s text, the tympani softly propelled the opening F major chord to a brilliant progression reminiscent of Puccini’s La Bohème. But here, in a lovely melody sung over the romantic progression, Ms. Hong gave voice to Strauss’s more optimistic mood. (What is it about those chords, progressing in thirds, that so magically evoke a deep, emotional landscape? Schumann and Wagner blazed this path, and Strauss and Mahler imprinted them indelibly on us.) Another affecting integration of word, melody, and harmony came as Ms. Hong sang the last three words of the verse, “Around us, the valleys bow’ the air is growing darker. Just two skylarks soar upwards dreamily into the fragrant air”’ to sustained Gb tonalities supporting eight exquisite flute trills.

Clarity of vision, with the melodic line soaring over crystal-clear harmonies, underpinned the final stanza, “O vast, tranquil peace, so deep at sunset! How weary we are of wandering — Is this perhaps death?” A marvelous, stately progression of chords emphasized the specific melodic and textual phrases: Bb (“O vast), Gb (“tranquil peace”), Bb (“so deep”), Eb (“How weary”), then a short progression through Bb and Eb to a C minor tonality, C minor (“Is this perhaps”), Bb major (“death?”).

Just as the listener was reminded, in this elegantly paced row of harmonies, of Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, a legato theme emerged in unison strings and muted trumpets that rang with familiarity from the tone poem, and the suite of songs drew quietly to an ending that left one pondering one’s death with a mix of sadness and solace. The final question – death? – gave one pause to ponder the possibility of enduring life, and the certainty of enduring music.

After the last echo of sound in the Shed there was silence. Some 15 seconds passed before the first, tentative applause began. This was an unforgettable moment of reverential contemplation, and shared wonder at the inspired performance.

After the resounding, and unprecedented success of Mahler’s Third Symphony, “the Fourth, so very different, enraged the Viennese public, who thought its stylistic references to their beloved Haydn, Mozart and Schubert a virtual insult. Viennese critics took the Symphony to task as a pastiche of ‘contrived naïvetés’ and impertinent quotations.” Lewis Smoley’s chapter in the authoritative edited volume, The Cambridge Companion to Mahler (edited by Jeremy Barham), treats adroitly the enthusiasm of great conductors both for Mahler’s music and his compositional vision, that mirrored the worship of such composers as Schoenberg and Berg.

In the year the Fourth was published, 1902, Mahler married Alma Schindler, conducted the first performance of the Third Symphony and completed his Fifth Symphony. This frenetic year also welcomed the birth of his daughter, Maria Anna, whose death from scarlet fever in 1907 marked the fulcrum of depression and marital turbulence that propelled Alma into the arms of Walter Gropius when she met him while recovering at a spa. In turn, the emotional juggernaut sent hurling down the track by these events weighed down on Mahler’s life and powerfully affected his music down to his own death in May, 1911, at the age of 50.

The first movement of the Fourth (marked “Pretty easygoing”) begins with a violin theme now familiar to concertgoers, because it is played so frequently, notwithstanding the snobbery (and prejudices) abroad in Austria at the time of its premiere. Jolly sleigh-bells, contrabasses and French horns set up an expansive, sunny mood. Maestro Mena appeared delighted with the sound of the orchestra and actively engaged with its players. The sweet second theme was gracefully lifted by the second violins and cellos, then tossed to the woodwinds. Slower variations followed, and Mena and the whole crew appeared to be breathing this glorious music together.

The main theme returned, along with the sleigh-bells, buttressed by a colorful counter-melody in the French horns and basses. Suddenly, the entire cello section offered a taste of Mahler’s Second Symphony in a delicious, downward glissando to the next iteration of the principal theme and the sleigh-bells. This was nothing if not a mid-summer night’s dream of Klezmer music at Christmastime! Delightful!

Keeping up the Eastern-European resonance, a quasi-Gypsy, quasi-Klezmer theme came and went in the French horns, followed by a virtuoso turn for all the contrabasses, going rapidly from pizzicato to arco to a happy dance with the contrabassoon. Superb, leaping clarinet, horn, and an entire muted trumpet section kept the party going, and Mena swept the baton low and up across the podium in a graceful dance of his own, perfectly mirroring Mahler’s soaring phrases.

At the end of the movement, a splendid solo horn led a diminuendo down to a pianissimo restatement of the first theme, before a glorious cascade drew down the curtain. Certainly, this orchestra has this piece embedded in its collective DNA, but this was a very special performance of a deservedly popular work.

The second movement (marked “At an easygoing pace. Without haste.”) began with a Stravinskian theme with folksy elements played eloquently by concertmaster Malcolm Lowe. He plucked some lovely Ab’s over the flowing strings, pushing the pulse and giving a special sparkle to the splendid string-focused orchestration. Then the contrabassoon, then all the woodwind voices joined in, and a series of French horn calls prefigured horn solos that extended throughout the movement.

So much more accessible than Berg, and so much less chromatic than Strauss, this symphony enabled a kind of archeological excavation of Mahler’s own musical idols, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Wagner principal among them.

Ms. Hong emerged to sing the soprano role at the outset of the next movement. To a slow melodic introduction in the second violins, sustained gently by the cellos, playing almost without vibrato and echoed by the oboe, she sang a magnificent, long, reflective melody that moved across the tonalities of G major and E minor. A weepingly beautiful solo by English horn virtuoso, Robert Sheena, gave way to repeated high appoggiaturas in the violins, then another English horn melody that descended to a magnificently-voiced low E.

An aura of sadness swept across the orchestra, suddenly brightened by a quick waltz with a martial flavor, the basses plucking both first and second beats, before returning to duple meter. Muted trumpet, glockenspiel, and cymbals accompanied the French horns, both in solo and in section, in an inspired heralding of the song to come, “Life in Heaven.”

A wisp of melody, bowed by the violins on the descending theme was echoed very quietly in the woodwinds. The horns rose in thirds to a glorious C ninth chord, and a fervent cadence down to G, then a strong E major with trumpets blazing, and cymbals and tympani crashing.

In moments, the mood was transformed. The horns held their instruments high, and summoned the heavenly hosts. Then, suddenly, a softer horn choir, and lovely, quiet harp arpeggios (those magical, romantic thirds again!) led to a liquid clarinet introduction to Ms. Hong’s entrance on the words, “We enjoy heavenly pleasures, and therefore avoid earthly ones. . .We lead angelic lives.” This verse was elevated by flights of piccolo by Cynthia Myers and flutters of flute by Elizabeth Rowe. Sleigh-bells rang softly and continued until the tonality shifted to minor, with repeated, nuanced mid-range appoggiaturas in the English horn.

Ms. Hong’s voice seemed perfectly suited for this other-worldly verse, with slightly reedy crescendos in the soft dynamics of the exquisite falling melody that brought the symphony to its close. She shaped the song beautifully, and the orchestra supported her magnificently. Every musician seemed to be listening expectantly, inhabiting the music as it unfolded. This was the committed musicmaking that makes the Boston Symphony one of the world’s greatest orchestras.

Once again at the end of the Mahler, there was a thoughtful pause of several seconds before the start of the deserved ovation. Few in the hall seemed unmoved by these inspired performances. Tears could be seen in many eyes.

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