in: Reviews

March 29, 2013

Orchestra and Audience Held Their Breath



Anne-Sofie von Otter and Daniele Gatti (Stu Rosner photo)

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.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.


  1. Mark, I agree with everything you say, but I notice you don’t mention Gatti’s tempi. I thought the first movement was much too slow to be as Dionysian as it should be. Unlike Jeremy Eichler, I thought his slow tempo worked better in the final movement. Thoughts on this?

    Comment by Bill Joplin — March 29, 2013 at 7:04 pm


    Comment by Richard Buell — March 29, 2013 at 11:01 pm

  3. Richard, the link to the YouTube video doesn’t seem to work.

    Comment by Bill Joplin — March 30, 2013 at 9:30 am

  4. For the record, the sit cue was missed. It was not intended that the chorus stand.

    Comment by anonymous — March 30, 2013 at 9:52 am

  5. It’s hard to compare tempi in Mahler performances, especially when he so scrupulously avoided using metronome markings. My recollection, still vivid after half a century, is that Burgin’s tempi in the first movement were rather like Jascha Horenstein’s in the Nonesuch recording of the 1970s,and that Gatti’s in this movement were pretty close to those. Solti’s (Decca) are a little bit faster, but only a little. In the last movement, everybody is pretty slow at about the same speed. Whether this means that the more recent conductors are listening to the older ones, I can’t really say. Gatti was certainly Dionysian enough for me.

    Parenthetical note: the program booklet mentions that two of the four flutes double piccolos; in fact there is one place in the first movement where all four flutes double piccolos. The only other work I know where this happens is Berg’s _Wozzeck_. (There are other places in Berg’s opera that seem to me to be directly copied from Mahler’s Third, notably the trumpet lick D-F-A-Csharp in the first movement.)

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — March 30, 2013 at 10:07 am

  6. Mark,
    What about Gurrelieder? Isn’t there a spot for 4 piccolos?
    I can’t recall if all the flute players change over, requiring 8 players or not.

    Comment by Brian Bell — March 30, 2013 at 11:43 am

  7. Bill Joplin and others —

    That was my third unsuccessful attempt to post the 1934 Schoenberg-conducts-Mahler clip. Puzzling.

    Well, try going directly to the YouTube site and then typing in “Schoenberg Mahler”.

    That HAS to work.

    I wonder what people make out of it. There’s no way that the performance COULDN’T be idiomatic, is there?

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 30, 2013 at 1:54 pm

  8. Yes, I certainly should have remembered the four piccolos in Gurrelieder,especially because of having mentioned the impossible high Bs in the “Summer Winds.” I don’t know if there is any place where all four play in unison. But it seems to be true that only four of the eight flutes change from time to time to piccolos, and there are places where all eight flutes are playing flutes. (And don’t we admire the wonderful shriek — no other word for it — for three piccolos near the beginning of the “Golden Calf” scene in Moses und Aron?

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — March 30, 2013 at 2:26 pm

  9. The broadcast tonight had me put down the reading and raise the glass high. Overall I had no trouble at all with the tempi, even in the last movement — which I thought was by no means *too* slow. What I liked best were the often unusual phrasings and voicings, many of them unheard before by this listener. I love it when an orchestra can do this and always ask myself, Did the conductor go through the whole score with them moment-by-moment? Of course not, but I have no other explanation. (Anyone?) The effects seem to be delivered from heaven, spontaneously. In this regard I’ll never forget MTT’s Spectrum performance of the Rite, which exhibited the condition in spades.

    Back to Mahler, Gatti seemed to know how to find both the great arcs and the wit, the latter especially in II. Von Otter was in fine voice as were the other ladies and the boys. Wish I’d been there, but Symphony Hall doesn’t serve during performances, or in the hall at all.

    Other performances: Seiji blew me away (NOT a Seiji fan here) with a Symphony Hall performance (how many?) years ago, although the Tanglewood repeat was merely really good. He got the same sort of unusual voicings and phrasings out of the orchestra.

    For recordings I still like the first ever (by F. Charles Adler) and Scherchen with the Leipzig. A dark horse contender is Kyril Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic, although in places it is extremely odd, which is okay by me.

    Comment by Clark Johnsen — March 31, 2013 at 12:16 am

  10. There are definitely other places in Mahler where all four flutes double piccolos, though some of them are scarcely audible (figure 49 in the last movement of the second symphony, at least in the revised version). The moment earlier in the movement where he has flutes 2, 3, and 4 switch to piccolos (four before 39, the “O Glaube” in the alto solo) has much more magic.m

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — April 1, 2013 at 8:37 am

  11. The question about tempi is ‘interesting’. Considering the length of the 1st mov., the recordings out there display rather small variance. It never seems to be a problem for this particular symphony. Gatti’s time on 1st mov. might be just in the range of 33-34mins (as everybody else). Over the years, the music performers learned to play more ‘desicively’, rather than to adjust their pace. It is a group of march band music after all. Dionysian or Apollonian, marches are marches. When summer marches in from the ‘coldness’, it always feels like Dionysian.

    “Anne-Sofie von Otter 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. ”
    Even Jessye Norman and Helga Dernesch sang in Mahler 3rd. It is not a uncommon practice to employ a mezzo. Otter herself, DeYoung, Ludwig and others have played this role.

    The chorus entrance was a distraction on Friday might…

    I have to report that many of our Boston audience did not hold their breath. When the quiet moments of the 1st mov. came, the only things I heard were people around me, with big lungs and narrow noses perhaps. Oh, and some others just kept rubbing their legs against the cushion.

    Comment by Thorsten — April 2, 2013 at 2:17 pm

  12. There are no more altos or contraltos. Look at the Met roster. The women all call themselves sopranos or mezzo-sopranos. Why is that?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 2, 2013 at 11:48 pm

  13. I just saw this, and thought I’d clarify that the posthorn solo was indeed played on a posthorn, not a flugelhorn.

    Comment by James Markey — April 4, 2013 at 2:47 pm

  14. Caught the Mahler 3rd in Carnegie Hall (2nd best in the U.S.?) It was a thrilling performance with tempi as right as one might want them personally, given the latitude among the best Mahlerians.
    Could it have been more Dionysian? Possibly, but the nature painting suggests a more Apollonian meadow. There were no excesses of any sort certainly. Dionysian marches? Exuberant, but without excesses of “rubato”.

    The big question for me, as for everyone who has written or posted here, was whether Gatti might be the next boss. He certainly had the orchestra where he wanted it and that was a very good place to be.
    There was an unfortunate trumpet entrance at the last run up to the finale. It is the sort of thing that makes a perfect performance just that bit less so, especially given the fact that the orchestra sounded magnificent and well deserved the huge ovation.

    Rumor had it that the new MD would soon, perhaps very soon, be announced. Just thought I’d say so despite the fact that as a classicist I know well that “Fama” tells truths and lies by halves and causes “dolor”,pain.

    Comment by Ed Robbins — April 6, 2013 at 4:59 pm

  15. The CRB BSO ConcertChannel now includes his Mahler 3, not as frequently it seems as the other season pieces, but I got to hear it again recently, and most of it seemed pretty good to this inexpert Mahler fan.

    Comment by David Moran — April 6, 2013 at 5:31 pm

  16. “Mahler can accomplish with three or four notes what Strauss would need three or four hundred notes for.”

    I think this is a cheep shot. Mahler certainly owns a reputation of being more verbose than most composers, including R.Strauss.

    Comment by Thorsten — April 6, 2013 at 7:31 pm

  17. Oh come on. Mahler wrote a lot of notes, but he took enormous pains about every one of them, whereas Strauss wrote enormous clouds of notes in hopes of avoiding committing himself about which ones he actually intended to be heard.

    “In the tone poems of Richard Strauss, for example, there is a considerable amount of busy-work in which the details were never intended to be distinguished and which is composed in such a way that it could not be clearly and distinctly played. (Strauss is known to have been disconcerted by the growing virtuosity of modern orchestras and their ability to give an unfortunate clarity to passages written to sound as a sweeping and harmonious blur.)”

    – Charles Rosen, “Arnold Schoenberg”

    Comment by SamW — April 7, 2013 at 9:32 am

  18. In response to Mr. Moran’s comment about the BSO Concert Channel, each piece shows up once for each pass through the cycle of all the concerts being streamed. In other words, the Mahler 3rd performance is streamed exactly as often as the Rachmaninoff 2nd piano concerto or the Beethoven Romance #1, but as the number of concerts in the rotation increases, no one piece will come around again as soon as it used to. A week ago it took a little over a day for the cycle to repeat; now it takes about 32 hours. By the end of the Tanglewood season, it should be something over three days of music before a piece comes around again. But each “cycle” will have every broadcast concert from the year exactly once.
    The Concert Channel stream sounds pretty good and benefits from playback in a quiet room with a good sound system.

    Comment by Mark Fishman — April 7, 2013 at 7:16 pm

  19. Let me recommend the New York Times review of the Mahler and Wagner concerts in Carnegie Hall which is now on line and in print in the morning. I don’t know if the orchestra likes Gatti personally, but he certainly did make them play like the great orchestra it can be. How he does with Mozart,Beethoven, and Brahms has yet to be known, but I would guess that they would not be undercooked. The audience in Carnegie gave him an instant ovation, and that is not an easy audience to please. Of the many orchestras I have heard there only the Berlin, Vienna, and Concertgebouw have turned them on this way, and the conducting was not of the same depth. This may be chauvinism, but I heard Koussevitsky conduct, or maybe you can take the boy out of Boston, but not Boston out of the boy.

    Comment by Ed Robbins — April 7, 2013 at 11:08 pm

  20. Well, almost irrespective of who’s on the podium this season, they seem to be playing fabulously well. Let’s hope this development survives the advent of the new director…

    Comment by Camilli — April 8, 2013 at 7:38 am

  21. I heard the webstream of the first half of the M3 and it seemed good, even very good, but nothing that eclipsed other conductors or orchestras in this work. Based on the fact that his Verdi and Wagner concerts were slack and heavy — especially in the Requiem Dies Irae — I hope the BSO doesn’t hire him just because he gave one out of three good concerts. A .333 percentage may be great for baseball players but not music directors.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — April 8, 2013 at 12:22 pm

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