The Boston Symphony under James Levine has taken up cycling, and at its performances this weekend (we caught the Thursday night opening one, October 14), it rode two at once: the beginning of a two-year cycle covering all the symphonies of John Harbison (culminating next year in the yet-to-be Sixth, which the BSO commissioned), and the continuation of its Mahler cycle around the composer’s sesquicentennial birthday this year and the centennial of his death next year. The Harbison symphony chosen for this occasion was the Third, written twenty years ago for Baltimore; Levine conducted it with the BSO in 2003. The Mahler was the pivotal Fifth, completed in 1902. Despite their creation at opposite ends of the 20th century, these two works have a great deal in common, from the superficial facts that each is in five movements and draws on the full resources of a big (in Mahler’s case, humongous) symphony orchestra, to the stylistic similarities of the composers’ using elements of popular musical culture, to the aesthetic concerns of each to reinterpret the received symphonic tradition without divorcing themselves from it. In addition, each work adopts a kind of narrative structure that ties one movement to the next, leading to a dénouement of considerable rhetorical — and sonic — force.
The Harbison Third might be thought of as his “Italian” Symphony, since much of it takes inspiration from scenes and sounds of his several stays there. Its five attached movements evoke a procession of temperaments (thus going Nielsen one better), all given in Italian. It begins with a figure of several descending swoops, in keeping with the movement’s title “Sconsolato” (disconsolate). This motif, which returns repeatedly in this movement to interrupt a variety of diversionary moods, haunts the rest of the symphony, coming back wearing different masks. To our ears this figure seemed less a cry of despair than a resigned sigh. The movement’s second subject, a hesitating kind of non-melody, was more subdued than lyrical. Harbison’s argumentation, here and throughout the symphony, was pellucid; it greatly invites repeated hearings. The second movement, “Nostalgico,” introduces, after an easily flowing tune with an early-Stravinsky sound to it, a melody Harbison cribbed from the carillon of the church in the Sant’Ilario quarter of Genoa. It comes out almost like a chorale, which is a further tie-in to the Mahler Fifth. The sighs intervene, and we proceed to the central movement, “Militante,” dubbed a scherzo — are you tiring yet of all these parallels to Mahler? — but full of fury, with a highly aggressive version of the carillon theme (is it mocking?). The sighs return as a pungent corrective. The fourth movement, “Appassionato,” brings a broad theme in the strings, curiously isolated and unaccompanied and therefore tonally rootless, until the brass intervene. The material is developed contrapuntally, finally integrating those sighs. The finale, “Esuberante,” however jazzy and bumptious it becomes (and it does, quite a bit), does not conclude in an unalloyed affirmation, though it’s plenty loud: there’s a reservation that tantalizes.
All in all, a very significant contribution to the ongoing discussion of what a symphony ought to be in our times and a highly satisfying essay in its own right. The performance was absolutely spot-on: this is a difficult score, especially for brass and winds, whose parts are often at registral extremes, and the BSO made it sound easy. If anyone ever performed a work of ours this well, we’d be ecstatic. Mr. Harbison, to whom Mr. Levine graciously ceded the majority of bows, was beaming at the players and the appreciative audience.
The Harbison symphony lasted 25 minutes; the Mahler Fifth runs three times that length. It was his first purely instrumental symphony since his first and marked a turning-point in his output. His orchestral colorations, always vivid, were increasingly refined and varied in chamber-like combinations; his developmental techniques, less beholden to the demands of text, became more classical (Mahler had never, of course, abandoned traditional forms, just stretched them to the breaking point). When composing the work, Mahler began with the scherzo — along with the Ives Fourth the most significant scherzo in any major symphony — only afterwards fitting four other movements around it to create an immensely powerful narrative from the funereal and grotesque to the sublime. By now this work is sufficiently well known that detailed description is superfluous. To Steven Ledbetter’s excellent program note can be added a fascinating discussion written by Richard Dyer and read by Eleanor McGourty on the BSO website, here.
In his own introductory note in the program book, Mr. Levine observed that this was the first occasion he has had to conduct Mahler 5 with the BSO. It is difficult in some instances to understand what his interpretive intentions were. There was an air of lassitude about the opening funeral march, a lack of nervous tension in the “stürmisch” second movement, with its many, perhaps sardonic, references to Beethoven 5. We were pleased with the central scherzo, a magnificent whirl of Viennese waltz and country Landler, full of Mahlerian qualified rapture. A lot of our satisfaction stemmed from the extraordinarily full and radiant performances by Principal Horn James Sommerville and Principal Trumpet Thomas Rolfs, though we must admit that there were many examples of the BSO’s best playing throughout the symphony: for example, the nearly silent pizzicato that ended the second movement was perfect, and the second trumpet’s muted response following one of Mr. Rolfs’s solos (sorry, we couldn’t tell if it was Associate Principal Thomas Siders or Benjamin Wright) was seamless and true.
The famous Adagietto for strings and harp presented an interesting case. In the aforementioned Dyer essay we were led to believe that current thinking on this movement, long a stand-alone audience favorite and widely understood as Mahler’s love letter to his wife Alma, was that it should not be taken at the funereal pace favored by second-generation Mahler conductors. What Mr. Levine seems to have done, though, is to bring what pulse the movement has to a standstill, as thought simply existed outside of time and space. We thought this museum-artifact approach not a terribly productive one, as it broke rather than refracted the narrative. The rondo finale, too, got off to a somewhat subdued start, but here it became clear that Levine was calculating towards the grand climactic chorale (melody first presented in the second movement). In that context, the gradual build-up served its purpose, adding effect to the coruscating, triumphant release at the end.