In January 1962, when the BSO gave the Boston premiere of Mahler’s Third Symphony under Assistant Conductor Richard Burgin, (Charles Munch’s concertmaster) I was there. Burgin had conducted Mahler’s Second a year or so earlier, and I remember at that occasion one of the assistant percussionists knocked over the tamtam stand in his enthusiasm. About two-thirds through the Langsam finale of Mahler’s Third at the Boston Symphony last night, there was a different mishap: a member of the chorus fainted and fell off the platform. The conductor, Daniele Gatti, stopped the orchestra and left the stage to assist and inquire, while both orchestra and audience held their breath, and the chorus (women and children) sat down. (They should have been allowed anyway to sit at the end of the fifth movement, despite Mahler’s attacca indication. To keep them standing through 25 minutes of glacially slow finale was sheer cruelty. If collective sitting-down would have been too noisy, it could have been done in rotation.) Gatti returned two or three minutes later and signaled to the orchestra to resume playing from No. 26, but the tension in the music was snapped and didn’t recover.
Aside from that infelicity, this was a fine Mahler performance by the Boston Symphony with the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the PALS Children’s Chorus. Anne-Sofie von Otter sang the brief soli in the fourth and fifth movements (she is billed as a mezzo, where Mahler’s score asks for an alto, but it didn’t matter; she projected with perfect innocence and warmth). I was especially impressed with Gatti’s conducting, which was marked by close attention to time-beating and cueing, with careful control of dynamics and registering. When his gestures sometimes seemed excessively wide and sweeping, they were justified by the enormous dimensions of the score, and most of the time he kept his beat small, where it could be closely observed (in the softest parts of the march in the first movement, he kept his hands and arms motionless for long seconds). Any professional conductor will tell you that Mahler’s symphonies represent the summit of difficulty in conducting technique, because the scores are so precisely detailed, with every nuance requiring close attention. Expert opinion from his own time strongly suggests even today that Mahler himself was probably the greatest orchestral conductor who ever lived, and one can imagine the experience he acquired over a lifetime of performing that enabled him to perfect the technique of his own scores. I wrote here a month ago about Schoenberg’s grandiose Gurrelieder, a work of great beauty and immense intellect but which is drastically overwritten orchestrally; Mahler’s scores in the Second and Third Symphonies are almost as huge, but there isn’t a note in them that is wasted or isn’t precisely and beautifully placed and telling.
The Boston Symphony musicians responded to Daniele Gatti with excellent playing of utmost clarity. I remember how beautiful they sounded in Mahler’s Fourth three years ago with Levine; this Third was of that caliber. I could go on and on about particular instances — the bright, deep trombone in the first movement (appearing three times, the third time with a barely-concealed motive from Bruckner’s Seventh); the remarkable purity of pianissimo tone of the double-basses in the march sections; the woodwind bird-calls in the third movement; the amazing persuasiveness of fff sound in the eight horns; the lovely distant flugelhorn, situated behind a door in the first balcony (another edition of the score asks for a posthorn); the chromatic-scale horse-laugh of full brass and lower strings in the “cuckoo” section; even the carefully crisp playing of the solo snare drum. All of these details combine in a score that offers simultaneously the most pellucid transparency and overwhelming massiveness of sound without a trace of heaviness or muddiness. Compare this brightly-colored score, most of whose instrumental action takes place in the upper-middle registers where singers would normally sing, with Ein Heldenleben or Also sprach Zarathustra and wonder how, in sheer sound, Mahler can accomplish with three or four notes what Strauss would need three or four hundred notes for.
It’s interesting to compare Mahler’s first four symphonies, of the so-called “Wunderhorn” years, for their cyclic relationships. It’s well known that Mahler deleted a seventh movement from this symphony and reworked it as the last movement of the Fourth, but thematic traces of it are prominent in the second and fifth movements of the Third, and it’s worthwhile to compare these. Likewise the shattering E-flat minor fff in the third movement that resolves just 16 bars later to an open fifth on C, ppp. Michael Steinberg compares this with the B-flat minor fff at the beginning of the fifth movement of the Second Symphony, also resolving to an open fifth on C; there’s even a distant echo of it (E major, fff) in the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony, once more yielding to an open fifth on C. With this ethereal open-fifth sound, it’s clear that Mahler had an aural image that he tried to perfect.
A different kind of stately aural image prevails in the sixth and final movement of the Third Symphony, marked not only Langsam but ruhevoll and empfunden. I have always felt that Mahler reaches too high for the empyrean in this movement, trying to say more than is necessary, when he has already said so much and so beautifully in the earlier movements and especially the first three. If Mahler doesn’t quite reach heaven here, he comes a lot closer in the third movement of the Fourth Symphony, which is of more modest but still imposing formal dimensions. (I remember, too, what Oscar Levant, visiting Schoenberg for a lesson, said about Mahler’s Second Symphony after Klemperer’s Los Angeles performance: “I don’t like it when a man talks on intimate terms with God.” Mrs. Schoenberg whispered to Levant after the lesson: “It’s a good thing that Schoenberg’s English wasn’t quite good enough to understand what you said, because if he had, he would have thrown you bodily out of the house.” I can’t find my copy of Levant’s Memoirs of an Amnesiac and so this citation may be slightly inaccurate.) Even the strange D-flat major slow movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony falls into this category; perhaps only the first movement of his unfinished Tenth reaches the transfigurative heights he seems to have constantly sought. In the more down-to-earth Langsam of the Third, with its four-bar phrases and warm songlike melodies that Schubert would have admired, Daniele Gatti wrung as much expression for the orchestra as he could, all the way to the trumpets’ quiet hymn near the end, and building up to the “noble tone” of the ff final measures. Mahler’s First Symphony, ending in the same key, is similar and just as triumphal, but at twice the tempo. He must have had it in mind.