Gustav Mahler is alive and well in Boston this week, thanks to the much-anticipated return of Music Director James Levine to his splendid corps of Boston Symphony Orchestra musicians at Symphony Hall for the opening night performance of the subscription season on October 7. The Mahler Symphony No. 2 received a committed, brilliant reading by a conductor who knows this music inside out and goes for the long line, still allowing his listeners time to savor the drama and glorious subtleties both of the contemplative and triumphant moments.
Mahler had a love/hate relationship with “programs” for his music, and Symphony No. 2 is complicated and inscrutable enough to make one wonder if he felt it necessary to give his perplexed listeners at least a stepping-off point for understanding its contradictions and complexities.
Levine’s pacing made splendid sense of the music, in many ways reminding this listener of George Szell. (I have never forgotten Szell’s Mahler Fourth Symphony for its perfect blend of give and take while never sacrificing the long shape of the work.) Levine brings a bit less taut control to these complex Mahler works, retaining the long line, but happily sniffing a few more roses along the path. Mahler can be torn apart by a conductor obsessed with one phrase or another, but Levine knew just where to hold back and where to let things go forward, and the BSO has never sounded better in its splendid and world-famous Symphony Hall. At moments such as these one feels proud to be a Bostonian. Hushed dynamics both from the orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus all seemed legitimately about “affect,” not “effect,” and that hush extended to the audience as we listened, rapt, to this heavenly music.
Singing from memory as is their custom, the Chorus could not have murmured their softest pianissimo more convincingly, nor could the triumphant last phrases have been more lofty and full of grandeur.
Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill brought just the right blend of mystery and quietude to “Urlicht,” and Layla Claire gave a convincing account of her few moments of singing. The woodwinds, especially in the second movement, were ravishing and transparent. The brass, after a few hesitant moments in the first movement, moved on to luminous playing at all dynamics in tone and phrase, especially in the quiet chorale of the final movement. Throughout, Levine appeared to be savoring every moment, calling forth so much from these wondrous colleagues.
E-flat major has never sounded so eloquent and moving as in the final section of this symphony, with the chorus, soloists and orchestra, so deeply under-girded with strong foundations of the organ, when the eternal call to us mortals is proclaimed: “Rise again, yes, you will rise again, my heart in the twinkling of an eye!” Who could fail to be moved by this music and this performance, in this place on such an evening?
An optimistic, heartfelt sense of gratitude for the return of Maestro Levine was palpable on this occasion, as it was the previous Saturday evening when he led a magnificent program of Wagner. With his return, let us hope that we have before us a number of years of important and significant musical experiences which we may anticipate with confidence and joy.