Haydn and Mahler might seem an odd couple, but the fine pairing of symphonies that opened the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2017-2018 subscription season Saturday evening reminded us how much they have in common — particularly their sense of humor. From the very first measure, both Haydn’s No. 103 (Drumroll) and Mahler’s No. 1 keep you off balance. Haydn starts off with a drumroll and then has the bassoons — supported by the cellos and double basses — intone a slow, mysterious melody that begins with the opening four notes of the plainsong Dies Irae. Mahler marks his first movement “Wie ein Naturlaut” (“Like a sound of Nature”) and begins by having the strings play a vibratoless seven-octave drone on the note A. After two measures, the winds call out a descending fourth, and that becomes a six-note descending figure (derived from the opening of the Suite in E Major by Mahler’s colleague Hans Rott) that will become the triumphal chorale in the finale.
There are other similarities between the two symphonies. Haydn’s Menuetto, with its strong accent on the first beat, feels like an Austrian Ländler; Mahler’s stomping second movement is most definitely one. Haydn in his Andante makes use of Hungarian and Croatian folk tunes; Mahler’s third-movement funeral procession, playing a minor-key “Frère Jacques” canon, runs into a Bohemian band. Haydn incorporated the timpani into powerful orchestral tutti that paved the way for 19th-century composers like Mahler, though he could hardly have imagined the thunder and lightning with which Mahler’s finale begins.
Haydn’s orchestra was, of course, much smaller than Mahler’s: two each of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, and trumpet, plus timpani and strings. If the Handel and Haydn Society or a similar period orchestra were performing this work, you’d expect 24 or so strings. For Saturday’s performance, BSO music director Andris Nelsons had 38, a reasonable compromise. The timing too was moderate, a half-hour for the symphony. Nelsons stood stock still for that opening drumroll, then led the orchestra into a sinuous, suspenseful introduction that seemed to anticipation the introductory bars of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. You couldn’t even be sure whether the movement was in duple or or triple time. Once the gracious 6/8 first subject emerged, followed by a jaunty, breezy second, it seemed as if the storm clouds had evaporated. But bits of the introduction sneak into the development, at the end of which the second subject gets unexpectedly full-throated and intense. Nelsons, with his left hand on the podium rail and the baton in his right, kept the pulse dancelike and danced a bit himself. The drumroll returns to start the coda, a reminder that, in this symphony, the military is part of everyday life.
Haydn’s second movement is marked Andante piú tosto allegretto (“Andante, or rather allegretto”). (In an odd coincidence, the original second movement of Mahler’s First, a movement the composer ultimately deleted, was marked Andante allegretto.) It’s a set of alternating variations in C minor and C major, but both sets march. Nelsons kept the tread steady and the articulation pointed without sounding self-conscious; here too the percussion was active, and there were militant explosions in both keys. Even as the movement looked to fade out, it erupted into one final climax. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe contributed a lovely solo to the second C-minor section.
In the Menuetto, Nelsons was heavy-footed and a shade static, though he did bring out the yodeling aspect of the Trio. The Allegro con spirito finale was also straight-faced for a movement that begins with another surprise, a call for the two French horns. Are we going hunting? The horns persist, but the main subject — now stealthy, now scurrying — suggests instead hide-and-seek. There’s martial glory at the end, and Nelsons conveyed that, but the movement could have been more playful and more exuberant.
Mahler’s First has its own military aspect — the composer grew up near a barracks in Bohemia, and at the beginning of the First we hear distant trumpets. But it’s the cicadas and cuckoos that dominate the opening movement. (Everyone from ornithologists to Beethoven in his Pastorale Symphony hears the European cuckoo’s call as a descending third, but in his First, Mahler makes it a descending fourth, since that’s the interval the entire symphony is built on.) The main subject derives from one of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, “Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld,” where on an early morning stroll across a field he salutes a merry finch and other natural wonders.
Nelsons built the introduction carefully, the offstage trumpets were well judged, and William R. Hudgins’s cuckoo clarinet kept its own time, as Mahler requested. The horns, too, were gloriously radiant at the end of the exposition. What I missed throughout the movement was a sense of wonder and awe — it’s not easy to make such familiar music sound fresh. The shape of the development, where nature turns still and perhaps ominous, was hard to grasp, but the final pages, where the composer overcomes his fears and continues on his walk, were brisk and extroverted.
The second-movement Ländler was measured and, like the Haydn Menuetto, a little static, though the stopped French horns were excellent. The Trio, a café waltz, went at the same tempo but had a completely different feel, tender and lilting and without the slush and schlock that some conductors bring to it.
Mahler’s third movement is a funeral march inspired by Moritz von Schwind’s 1850 woodcut The Hunter’s Funeral Procession (or something very like it), in which stags, foxes, rabbits, and other game animals bear the hunter’s coffin while weeping crocodile tears. The procession gets brought up short by a klezmer band that’s instructed to play “with parody.” We eventually get an explanation in a section that Mahler marks “very simple and plain”; it’s based on another of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz,” in which the blue eyes of the hero’s beloved send him away, out into the world. So it’s a funeral procession for the death of love. Here Nelsons was almost too simple and plain. But he gave full measure to the parody, in tempo as well as texture, surging forward where Mahler asks the conductor to.
The finale — which Mahler at one point marked “Dall’Inferno al Paradiso” — begins with an infernal cacophony and then an angry march struggling toward paradise. This subsides into a slow, wistful flashback to the deleted original second movement, a love serenade Mahler called Blumine. Even without Blumine to flash back to, it’s clear the composer is reflecting on his lost love. Nelsons made this section as regretful and passionate as any performance I’ve heard. A triumphant rising melody (also derived from Blumine) stalls out, and the music finds its way back to the opening movement, whose introduction frees the hero, after one last lovelorn look back, to move forward, his ticket to fame and fortune the symphony he’s just created. Nelsons was just as winsome in that second look back. But the peroration overloaded, for all that it brought the audience to its feet. In the coda, ideally, you would hear the string writing underneath the brass annunciation. That didn’t happen Saturday, in part because Nelsons, adhering to Mahler’s marking, accelerated through the final bars.
The movement timings overall for this performance were pretty standard: approximately 16:00, 7:30, 10:30, and 19:00. In places it could have been less studied and more spontaneous. But as Mahler Firsts go, it was well above average.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.