IN: Reviews

Magnificent Return of Mahler Sixth


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.



12 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. another ‘good’ politically correct review with highlites as the folowing lines.

    “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.”

    At least people have sth to say this time, since Mahler and his wife said sth. After hearing Zander’s talks for a few times, certain jokes lost the freshness and became very sour. “… we have a wonderful audience who understand this motiv…” A serious concert should be just concert. Having an introduction is just as if he is saying ‘our wonderful audience doesn’t unserstand this music much’.

    going bask to music. Zander in his talk highlighted a “strange sound world” in the second movement. He was refering to the oboe up up and down theme. Apparently, Zander was thinking of certain monstrous thing and he tried to be faithful to the score, where it says “langsamER”. He paced it like langsam + langsamer. What does the theme mean? A typical jewish jazz melody, if you are familiar with M7’s opening theme, same atmosphere. playing it too slowly only guaranteed that Mahler’s riddles are unsolvable. Steinberg said Mahler’s wife heard children playing (finally ein Weib who understands der Mann). I have no idea whether this is widely known or not. I just could not hear any children playing scene by BPO under Zander. I suggest they listen to some Schumann or visit a kindgarten before the next concert. To build this feeling in the 2nd movement is utterly important, because the 3rd movement is … That is why this 6th symphony has to be played scherzo-andante. Zander carefully avoided this argument.

    I have more to say on M6

    Comment by Thorsten — February 22, 2013 at 9:06 pm

  2. Thorsten doesn’t specify whether he went to the pre-concert lecture, or whether Zander imposed
    comments upon an unwelcoming audience. Please be clear rather than adding more.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — February 23, 2013 at 9:42 am

  3. in the pre-concert talk, he emphasized this theme (about 5mins into the scherzo movement) and asked the BPO to preview it to the audience. He said it was stragne sound, terrifying (may not be the exact words). All of a sudden, the pace was slowed down (too much) when the oboes were about the enter. As I said, his pace was slow + slower. But it really should be just langsamer.It is more like expression rather than pace. Many of Mahler’s jewish motivs were played by violins. This time, it is darker woodwind. In M7, it is even darker, played by the tenorhorn.

    Comment by Thorsten — February 23, 2013 at 10:15 am

  4. Was it a “magnificent return” of the Mahler Sixth? Not really, however, it was a good concert for a semi-armature orchestra. There were numerous ordinary mistakes in play but there were perfectly reasonable and the most important that the mistakes were random and had no own structure. It was not like BSO and last Bruckner concert when I was in complete confidence that next second let say a horn will slide off the tune. In fact the play that BPO demonstrated gave me no expectations that something unpleasant about to come from the players. The unpleasant things did happen, there were perfectly accidental and did not built in me any Pavlovian reflex of annoyance, therefore whatever little problems of micro-execution existed during BPO play might be discarded in my view.

    I was visited on Saturday, taking my “tested” sits in the NEC hall for this type of music. The BPO proceed with the opening of the first movement and it was nothing but adulterated pleasure. Zander did find a VERY good balance in there between certain grace/elegance and semi-arty aggressiveness. The strategy was perfect and BPO responded energetic and very fruitful. As the criticism I would mention only that Zander (as any other conductor) need to find other reasons to play M6 besides just rendering another good performance of a celebrated work. Zander went for non-conflict, tested by time version of M6. To do it properly is a hell of a task and as a noble accomplishment itself but frankly I am looking for something else. I am looking for some kind of personal challenge from a conductor who would surprise me with his “loaded”, characteristic and very personal interpretation. It did not take place. Zander went for his hedonistic celebration of a bitten path in musical interpretation. Well, the M6 in THAT interpretation I did heard before with orchestras that has more colors and slightly kinkier phrasing. Zander did not make this M6 as his personal statement. Well, it was what it was but I think if he had those objectives than he very much could do anything he wants… if he had those objectives…

    The scherzo. Here is when BPO lost me. It was surprisingly confused as it felt at time that they were lost. The quality of expression and phrasing where at a “just survival” level, the orchestra sounded overly controlled and it was not the Mahler 6 scherzo but rather: “Mayday Mayday Mayday. Our hiking team lost in fog at 15000 over sea level and we are suffering from altitude sickness”.

    The Andante. I have to admit that I personally feel that Andante from 6 is one of the best things Mahler composed (with exception of that retarded cowbells during E major climax). In the Andante Mahler almost risen to the level of Bruckner and if it done properly it might sound like early Bruckner on testoroids. It did not happen this time. In fact I have no idea what happened with BPO. During the first two movements BPO was perfectly balanced chromatically and dynamically. Then during Andante it was like some kind of switch went off and BPO tune very bright and very loud. I am not kidding but it was at time painful to hear them. All woodwinds were following strings and were screaming like wounded in ass hyenas. I have no idea why the transformation of sound took place but as a result the whole Andante got converted for me into unfortunate BPO whistling.

    During the Finale movement BPO did get the tonal balance back but I was kind of bewildered and hurt by Andante that it took for me a good part of last movement to recover. I did not get that sense of unsystematic agony that I would like to hear in the Finale. It was again overly consoled playing and instead of chaotic anguish I felt just a prescribed chemotherapy. The orchestra finished nicely with the final flow properly administered.

    In the end, despite all my critiques I think it was a good evening for BPO. I was not the concert that I will remember to the rest of my life and that I will be telling to kids about. However, it also a concert that if you live in Boston and not particularly hate M6 then it would be shame to miss it. Last time BSO played M6 a few years back they demonstrated drastically different play during Thursday/Friday/Tuesday and the Saturday. On Saturday it was a completely different orchestra with absolutely different Mahler. So, it might be possible that BPO’s today concert will be different. BPO did show it’s own version of M6. I do think it worth to get familiar and if the total result is not the best Mahler you ever heard but the BPO attempt was commendable.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — February 24, 2013 at 9:22 am

  5. I’m not sure why there has to be a constant quest for novelty: Zander has to give us Zander’s M6 (a symphony, I presume, not a motorway). Why can’t he just give us Mahler’s M6 to the best of his ability?

    If conductors “get” Mahler, or Bruckner, or anybody else, the performances they lead should be pretty similar. Sure, conductors sometimes bring out things in the music that others haven’t; but if they don’t always do so, good music is still worth hearing.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 24, 2013 at 7:07 pm

  6. On a different subject… Hated the cowbells. Just looking at them it’s clear they won’t give the sound required. Separate them. Control different bells with different hands. Allow for space and air — they don’t sound continuously. Maybe someone needs a trip to Europe. These sounds can still be heard.

    Comment by Jack — February 25, 2013 at 12:20 am

  7. Joe Whipple wrote: If conductors “get” … the performances they lead should be pretty similar.

    This is a very controversial subject. I feel different then you. I think that if they do “get” and the orchestra could follow than performances only “might” be the same but the performances might also be very different. Again, it is very loaded and very large subject that is not part of this thread.

    Jack wrote: Hated the cowbells. Just looking at them it’s clear they won’t give the sound required. Separate them. Control different bells with different hands. Allow for space and air — they don’t sound continuously. Maybe someone needs a trip to Europe. These sounds can still be heard.

    I very much agree with you. Not only cowbells had sonic character as is they just flipped upside down cheap cooking pots but many percussions were inappropriately loud. I can’t say anything about the loudness of cowbells as I was sitting right next to them but the volumes of glockenspiel, the hammer and the that bushy wooden mallets were way too loud. BTW, it kind of becoming a common practice nowadays – to show off the “different” Mahler percussions but it has nothing to do with flow of music and better performances of Mahler do organically and naturally incorporate “unique“ Mahler percussions into the fabric of music. The hammer was a separate subject, I was not load per se but rather had absolutely inappropriately character. I do not know if that Mahler Box is a tunable construction if terms of pitch but it sounded like the Zander Box was just built before the concert by an anonymous carpenter from Craigslist who made an emergency run to Home Depot. It was way high in pitch and it sounded caricaturish to my ear. Perhaps instead of striking the box with metal stick they need to find a nice large wooden hammer or perhaps to wrap the metal stick with some dampening material in order to remove much overtones. What I know that each of 3 blows that were delivered were very much not the part of the music BPO played but a completely alien entity.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — February 25, 2013 at 8:04 am

  8. I wasn’t there — I was too busy avoiding the Academy Awards — but I remember commenting on the Mahler hammer in reference to Berg’s op. 6 Three Pieces for orchestra, which, with obvious reference to Mahler’s 6th, specifies a “Grosser Hammer mit nichtmetallischem Klang.” (Dorati’s quite good performance of Opus 6 uses a hammer that can only be called “stark metallisch.”) Levine’s Opus 6 with the BSO a few years ago had what looked like a croquet mallet, but the sound was a good one. In 1957 I heard the premiere of David Diamond’s Sixth Symphony by the BSO, and a “gavel” is called for in that score; it looked like a butcher’s wooden mallet, and it made a considerable racket.

    As for the Mahler Sixth itself, not many seem to remember the remarkably fine recording of 1966 by the BSO with Leinsdorf, one of the best things I ever heard of Leinsdorf’s on records. Especially triumphant was the burst of triangles, “mehrfach besetzt,” just before the end of the first movement. I hadn’t bought the record for the Mahler but for what was on the fourth side: Berg’s _Le Vin_, with Baudelaire’s untranslated text instead of the usual Stefan George. Phyllis Curtin was the singer. It’s the only French recording I know of _Der Wein_. Claudio Spies’s comment to me, in a letter, was “Next thing, he’ll be calling it Manishevitz.”

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — February 25, 2013 at 8:55 am

  9. Mark DeVoto: If you are quoting Spies’s letter to you accurately, his nasty comment earns further opprobrium with his misspelling of Manischewitz.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — February 25, 2013 at 12:55 pm

  10. Brings back memories if Der Wein with Jessye Norman, Boulez, and Ny Phil circa 1975. The only time I heard it live.

    As for the Hammerschlag, if it is to evoke the sound of an ax it should be wood on solid wood. The resonance of the box was in sufficiently alien to orchestral sound.

    Comment by Jack — February 25, 2013 at 8:21 pm

  11. I owned the BSO/Leinsdorf M6 on LP and now have it on CD. It’s always been one of my favorite performances of the symphony, despite the omission of First Movement repeat. And I agree about the wonderful percussion in the first movement, in a recording with superb audio throughout. Leinsdorf was a very fine Mahler conductor.

    As for Zander–I went on Saturday night, in Jordan Hall– I found the performance generally very good, if lacking sometimes in nuance. Only the Scherzo did not work for me. I’m on the side of those who prefer the Andante-Scherzo order, and this performance was an example of why: the Scherzo sounds too much like more of the same after the overwhelming Allegro. Zander did not find a way to characterize the movement so it that it would make the proper inmpact. The Andante was thoroughly beautiful. Both outer movements worked very well for me, even though as a huge Mahler fan I still think the Finale goes on about 5 minutes too long. Regarding the cowbells, to me they sounded weird and not really like cowbells. I noted many audience members looking quizzically at the balcony door as we heard them in the Allegro (perhaps they had not heard Zander’s lecture, or not read the program notes). The mysterious, ethereally beautiful quality they should have was not very evident. I disagree with comments here about the hammer blows. I felt they worked very well, with a huge, dead thwack that I think Mahler wanted. I had missed the lecture and was not sure if Zander would include the third blow. It was fun to hear that one, but it does not seem necessary to me every time. All around I was pleased.

    Comment by Jay M — February 27, 2013 at 6:21 am

  12. It is obvious that the opening of the scherzo sounds like the 1st movement. and it is obvious Mahler himself found it awkward.

    But for the internal music logic, andante has to be the 3rd movement. Mahler ‘fans’ should know the meaning of each movement.

    BTW, can someone tell me? what does not bell sound mean in the 3rd movement?

    Comment by Thorsten — February 27, 2013 at 1:28 pm

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