At the conclusion of a week of mayhem and disruption on a worldwide scale perpetrated by desperately self-righteous deniers of our common humanity, the Tanglewood ethos affirmed once more, that “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” when they make and listen to music together. Conductor David Afkham and baritone Simon Keenlyside, made of their second BSO appearances, something moving, consoling, technically polished, programmatically apt and utterly memorable.
The Friday Shed concert first resounded with selections from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn and his Rückert Lieder. The printed notes did not explicate who chose the examples or for what reason. The five numbers from Wunderhorn, aside from one typically alternating roles, traditionally go to the male singer in complete performances. Of the two Rückert songs, one felt particularly inevitable at this venue.
Mahler in general knows very well how to accompany the human voice, using all the orchestral resources of color, yet carefully modulating with wise reserve. Afkham managed the intriguing interplay of sectional timbres impeccably, while propelling the drama and embracing the irony. After “The Sentry’s Night Song,” in which the odd-numbered verses covered him, Keenlyside found a groove for effective, powerful, but never pushed dramatic projection. Experienced in many operatic roles, he found in Mahler’s vivid characters something of both Don Giovanni and Leporello. And that first song’s alternating embraces of the martial, natural, and romantic constitutes something of a miniature representation of an entire Mahler symphony. After all, there are many connections between the symphonies and these songs.
“Labor Lost,” required the singer to embody both lass and laddie in the Birdcatcher mode (another specialty of this singer). Afkham led “Little Rhine Legend” with a shapely rhythmic flexibility, while heightening both the comic and contentious characteristics.
The first Rückert song, “I Breath a Gentle Fragrance,” stopped the show with bucolic tone painting. Keenlyside’s sotto-voce wafted heavenward as a mild zephyr could be felt clearing the dense air of the shed. In “If You Love for Beauty,” the singer broke our hearts with powerfully elegiac pleading and supplicating arm gestures. A sneering, snarling, tormenting percussion tattoo led the ironic death march in “The Drummer Boy.” The clarity of the shed allowed us to place each instrument and hear its individual reaction each as the condemned man passed.
The last song of the set, “Reveille,” a tale of another drummer boy, one who dies in battle, encapsulates the futility of all human striving, while letting us know that sang froid “tralalee tralalay” vanquishes death. Singer, conductor, and band paraded through this ironic marvel (which must have inspired Brecht and Weil) with masterful assurance. A Germanophile pondered: Referring to bones of dead soldiers standing rank and file, Michael Steinberg translated “Die Trommel steht voran,/ dass sie ihn sehen kann.” as “The drummer-boy stands at their head/ so that she [meaning the Drummerboy’s girlfriend] can see him.” But die Trommel [feminine noun] is a drum, thus the lines perhaps should translate as “The drum stands at their head/ so it can see him.” This is an important distinction, because it is quite poignant for the drum to feel bereft of its boy.
Annotator Jan Swafford reminds us of Brahms’s explication of his “elegiac” Symphony No. 2 in D Major in a letter to Clara Schumann, “The new symphony is so melancholy that you won’t be able to stand it. I’ve never written anything so sad…The score must appear with a black border.” Swafford concludes, “Brahms’s testament to the past is haunted by a skepticism and foreboding that seem prophetic.”
As the program continued where Mahler left off in the the “tralalas” of the dead drummer boy, one had an easy time reimagining Brahms’s symphony as an amalgam of nostalgia, resignation and tragedy. We hear the tympani’s heartbeats as counting our hours. Yes, the composer provides slanting rays of a warming sun to make the somber horn calls all the more tragic. The strings lead a nervous Viennese death waltz, and one is also summoned to account by the tuba and trombones radiantly exciting the air of the shed. The acoustic supports a surprisingly engaging volume of sound where one expects only out of doors clarity.
Christoph von Dohnányi’s reading from a few years back, replete with frequent rubati and hesitations may have elicited something closer what Brahms might have expected, but Afkham’s modern, propulsive, disruptive, and clear-headed young man’s vision resulted in a Brahms Second for this moment in time.
In the big cello tune which opens the adagio second movement, the section got in some juicy and stylistic slides within Afkham’s stalely, almost solemn proceedings. Neither three nor two wants to yield in this movement. My aislemate Tony Schemmer explains that Brahms achieves this metrical restlessness through constant alternation of duplet and triplet subdivisions. The illustration below shows how the master can keep the beat constant while switching subdivisions almost constantly from two to three. Section after section kept pleading, “Save me!”
The third movement seems to answer us: Sweetness just might endure as a pastoral idyll, even though, “alle Menschen müssen sterben,” and “alles Fleisch is wie das Grass.”
The fourth movement’s extreme restless turbulence contrasts the academic realm with nature’s and the logical with the emotional. Afkham’s perfectly contrasted the movement’s muted and extravagant strivings. His inspired vision and the orchestra’s totally in-the-moment execution induced Brahms to whisper in my ear, “Better angels will save us.”
Post scriptum: Is someone willing to step in and review Strauss’s Alpine Symphony on Sunday? I can’t bear to hear it after last night’s high.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer