Standing in for the still-ailing Christoph von Dohnányi, Andris Nelsons this week conducted two works by composers who broke decisive musical ground by “putting themselves” at the heart of their works, to paraphrase Haydn’s comment on Beethoven. Martin Helmchen returned (He did the Beethoven Emperor with Dohnanyi at the BSO two years ago and the Schumann at Tanglewood in 2011) as piano soloist, this time in the Beethoven C Minor Piano Concerto. The second half featured Mahler’s First Symphony, briefly called “Titan” by Mahler himself, perhaps after the novel by Jean Paul. Last night, we heard thrilling performances of both works, presented as we’ve never heard them before.
Charles Rosen wrote that Beethoven in C minor “has come to symbolize his artistic character … [revealing] Beethoven as a Hero”. Nelsons and Helmchen took the revelation a step higher by depicting the composer-hero as Prometheus bringing fire to humanity. Nelsons infused the orchestral exposition with a marvelous feeling of aimless wandering, conveying a humanity in search of itself, in search of a direction, plagued by ambivalent moods of yearning/anxiety, impatience/expectation, hope/defiance. Helmchen entered into this human vagabondage by taking immediate, life-infusing control. Suddenly there was force of expression, energy, an ineffable sense of purpose. With hair becoming more disheveled by the minute, Helmchen sat Beethoven firmly at the piano, bringing fire from the gods, communicating energy to the orchestra and to the audience in great rushes of adrenaline. In the softer, restrained moments, the wild man at the piano seemed to be single-handedly harnessing a powerful force of nature for the sake of delivering it to humanity by increments. The orchestra responded by becoming excited, confident and infused with divine energy.
Nelsons’s and Helmchen’s Promethean reading of the first movement allowed the largo slow movement to speak to us in its full plenitude of revelation, evoking a solemn and worshipful process in which the orchestra could absorb the vastness and brooding eternity of the cosmos. Helmchen outdid himself in shaping the notes with great nuance, sometimes sparkling, other times muted, mysterious and without shine. The rondo finale was positively demonic, in the original Greek sense of “inhumanely” inspired and creative. This feeling of a danse diabolique was achieved through bold dynamics in the orchestra, evoking audacity and still more audacity in the face of danger, combined with Helmchen’s mischievous gestures of infusing the creatures of Prometheus with ever-new increments of energy as they brandished their fire. Nelsons’s conducting was brilliant, verging on the charivari, and made the audience fall in love with heroic inventiveness before the unpredictable all over again.
Nelsons brought the same unveiling of hidden possibilities to Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. The first movement pulled us slowly out of slumber, as though creating us out of nothingness in a brooding genesis that led to explosive dynamics in which the composer-hero could find a precarious footing and live and move and have his being. Nelsons carefully crafted two simultaneous layers of awareness, a surface level of loveliness in which a young flâneur/hunter/hero could naively be lured into a cocky sense of human self-confidence, while a second layer of dark abysses and dangers threatened to erupt at every step. Nelsons ended the movement with uncompromising dynamics to position Mahler firmly as directing us forward to Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Modernism. The second movement Landler was given a frankly Expressionist level of savagery, a horrific kernel of death-dominated urges, presenting humanity as blind to its irrationally homicidal nature.
In the famous funeral march movement, Nelsons made us hear Mahler’s chilling distortions of the folk song “Bruder Martin”, allowing humor to become grotesque and conveying humanity’s unsettling investment in morbid rituals. The Klezmer trio episode was interpreted as self-subverting, with conflicting layers of lyrical nostalgia and naïve triumphalism, but it opened a brilliantly unexpected clearing for the composer-hero to discover the “I” in himself that is capable of pulling us out of savagery and morbidity—only to be faced anew with the funeral procession and the return of the death culture. Nelsons interpretation of the final movement was as masterful as it was original and bold. He forcefully showed us Mahler’s Modernist vision, as the composer-hero faces a world of horror and terror with his own solitary self-belief and resources. Carefully controlling the balance of each section of the ensemble and each entry, Nelsons brought to life Mahler’s “from hell to paradise” ideation, highlighting Mahler as a new, modernist Dante whose personal experience of suffering is transformed into hope for humanity. In the end, the composer-hero confronts the seduction of apocalypse and pulls us out of a late-Romantic Wagnerian bewitchment with Thanatos (nihilism) by means of a resolute and thrilling affirmation that we are free to pursue a culture of life and love (Eros) over our death wish.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.