From the BPO comes, “The Mahler Sixth has occupied a very prominent place in the musical life of Ben Zander and in the history of the Boston Philharmonic. The commercial recording, made many years ago, was one of the artistic high-water marks for the orchestra. It was lavishly praised in the international press at the time and, although it has been unavailable for the past few years, it is still often singled out by critics as their favorite recording of the symphony.”
Anyone around in Boston during the time that recording was released in 1996 (and still available) would very probably agree. Critic Tony Duggan, in his updated 2007 synoptic survey “The Mahler Symphonies” [here], lists this recording just below his top ten recordings saying, “if you fancy a wild card, try Zander, but go for the Boston” (meaning not the London Telarc version done in 2002).
On Thursday evening, as is usual in the Discovery concerts, Zander was on stage, in this case with an augmented Boston Philharmonic, for their pre-concert lecture-demonstration. Clearly and unequivocally Zander was at his very best. So connected to and overtaken by Mahler, Zander’s big personality was drawn out of himself and into the Sixth, allowing a very strong turnout at Sanders Theatre full entrance into the world of the symphony hailed as the “Tragic.” That Zander’s empathy runs big-river-deep could be observed in every spoken word and in every carefully chosen orchestral illustration, which he led without baton, his long arms expressively reaching in every direction. In retrospect, I would point out that the Alma theme, for one, without baton, conveyed fluidity and embrace in contrast to the performance’s less elastic, ecstatic pose.
After the break, a noisy one at that, a crescendo of players returned to the stage for warm-ups, leading to a competing crescendo of excited voices from around the hall. Earlier, Zander had queried if Mahler would have been happy with the “hammer” solution of the BPO (Mahler’s own original attempt Zander had described as “feeble”). I might have asked the same with regard to this intermission’s cacophony.
“It is a long time since the BPO has performed the Mahler Sixth, and its return is long overdue” continues the BPO, and I and could not agree more. Having plotted and mapped the Sixth’s long and complex structure with keen, pronounced insight, Zander took up his baton. The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, its soloists, its sections of nine horns (that is what I counted), five trumpets, a handful of low brass, lines of flutes and other woodwinds from piccolo to contrabassoon, percussion including two timpanists, whisk-like sticks borrowed from Turkish Janissary marching bands, three large cymbals, and that impressive hammer, along with the strings, were all magnificent. They truly inspired with their bursting array of sound coupled with their abounding engagement in this Mahler Sixth.
Zander’s notion took convincing hold that Mahler’s own personal feelings of love and desolation, his emotional states marked with aspiration and inevitable loss, were here in the Sixth translated into a universal expression through archetypal structure and form. Mahler’s harmony so rich with imagery almost always tinged with tinctures of life’s hopes and despairs rang out dazzlingly. Zander’s lucidness dispelled much of what Mahler himself had to say: “My Sixth will be asking riddles that can be solved only by a generation that has received and digested my first five.”
For those of us who know Mahler, there was much to follow via this Zander-BPO rendering Thursday evening, and I would assume those less acquainted would not have been baffled by too many of the music’s “riddles” Alma Mahler’s words. What did, unfortunately, interfere with the overall orchestral storytelling was that too much was put in front of us, which translates into too much orchestral weight. What you can’t quite see is more terrifying—it is the unknown. Moreover, Zander’s leaning on heavier volume did not allow many of the climaxes to be themselves, climaxes. More relief, more standing back, more celeste, which could hardly be heard, for instance, became a noticeable threat to an otherwise all-consuming event—Mahler’s Sixth took up the entire program, nearly an hour and a half of music without intermission, not at all a concert, really, rather an experience of epic proportions not to be missed.
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net