The story goes that when Bruno Walter visited Gustav Mahler at Mahler’s summer composing retreat in Steinbach in 1896 and found himself admiring the Höllengebirge, he heard the composer call out to him, “No need to look up there, I’ve composed it all away!” Meaning that Walter had no need to look at nature since Mahler had put it all into his Third Symphony.
If he didn’t, it wasn’t for want of trying. The Third is the longest symphony in the mainstream repertoire; hardly any performance runs less than an hour and a half, and on record Lorin Maazel has stretched it beyond 110 minutes — almost as long as the first act of Parsifal. Mahler planned for seven movements:
1. Pan Wakes; Summer Marches In (Bacchic Procession)
2. What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me
3. What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me
4. What Humankind Tells Me
5. What the Angels Tell Me
6. What Love Tells Me
7. What the Child Tells Me
Eventually he settled for six; “What the Child Tells Me” would become the finale of his Fourth Symphony. This movement would have been anticlimactic in the Third, which, with mezzo-soprano and choruses, traces the evolution of human consciousness, from its inert beginnings all the way to its awareness of Divine love, reflecting along the way on Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. That’s a challenge for any orchestra and conductor. Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, BSO music director Andris Nelsons — joined by Susan Graham, women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and a children’s choir — rose to the occasion with an interpretation that was big in concept and scrupulous in detail. As with most of his best performances, Nelsons made leading this massive symphony look easy. Yet he didn’t just observe Mahler’s innumerable directions, he gave life to them.
He was particularly effective in the half-hour-long first movement, which is the most problematic of the six. It begins with eight French horns blasting out a Dorian-mode theme that Mahler called “Der Weckruf” (“The Waking Call”), a theme that harks back to the discarded Blumine movement of his First Symphony. What follows might be termed a struggle between the blind will of Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung and the “gay science” of Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra and Die fröhliche Wissenschaft — or in simpler terms, between winter and summer. One of Mahler’s early titles for the symphony was Ein Sommernachtstraum (“A Summer Night’s Dream”), so no surprise that summer not only marches in but triumphs.
There’s also a political element to this movement. The march that starts up in F major some 10 minutes in is a variant of the opening horn call that Mahler based on the early-19th-century student song “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus.” (Brahms used the same theme in his Academic Festival Overture.) Defiant members of the German-nationalist Leseverein der deutschen Studenten Wiens sang this song in December 1878 after the government dissolved the organization, some of whose members were part of Mahler’s student circle. This march is opposed by the horns as they struggle in the initial agonies of consciousness (like the Alma-chrysalis in Ken Russell’s 1974 film Mahler). It’s only after Mahler invites “Das Gesindel” (“The Rabble”) to join in — Nietzsche would not have approved — and the “Südstorm” (“Southern storm”) sweeps all before it that winter and repression are trampled underfoot. Richard Strauss recognized the movement’s political import: to him it suggested the proletariat marching down Vienna’s Prater on May Day. In 1905, Mahler himself marched with workers on the Ringstraße.
For the conductor, the battle is between the narrative and the movement’s sonata form. Pan’s awakening is thwarted at the end of the exposition and again at the end of the development, after which the recapitulation returns to the long slog of the introduction and it seems as if human consciousness had been stillborn. It’s easy for a conductor to lose momentum here, particularly if he or she has taken that introduction very slowly. Thursday’s performance ran 34 minutes, which is on the long side, but it didn’t feel long, and it certainly never dragged. The opening section offered assertive French horns, a sense of drama, and careful shaping. The struggle for consciousness was more majestic than torturous; the end of the exposition was marked with a flickering halt, and the march, when it kicked in, had a jaunty swagger — you hardly needed Mahler’s program to follow the narrative.
Along the march route the upper winds chime in clearly soused — Mahler did describe this as a “Bacchic procession”! But there’s also a pause for what might be a tribute to a fallen companion from the first trombone. Toby Oft’s solo was gorgeous in both tone and phrasing, Nelsons giving him ample room. The recapitulation, weighted but not despondent, seemed like just one last protest from winter; after further reassurance from Oft, the march rolled on, now unstoppable. Mahler instructs the conductor to press forward to the end. When I listen to Jascha Horenstein’s London Symphony Orchestra recording from 1970, I wish he hadn’t: Horenstein’s marchers strut to the finish rather than racing for it. But Nelsons, following Mahler’s marking, unleashed the movement’s pent-up energy, and the galloping trumpets were still crystal clear.
What follows this first movement is the agonized upward journey of the spirit. The flora of “What the Flowers Tell Me” feel neither joy nor pain; in this minuet lashed by stormy trios, they simply die, perhaps to bloom again. Only at the end is there a wistful glimmer of consciousness. “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me” chirps and scurries until a post coach makes its way through the woods and every creature stops to listen to the distant posthorn. Mahler surely had in mind Nicholas Lenau’s poem “Der Postillon,” in which the postilion stops the coach near a churchyard and blows a salute to the old friend who lies buried there. Nostalgic and forlorn, Mahler’s posthorn seems to embed the concept of mortality into the animals’ mind; after it has sounded for the last time, their thoughtlessness becomes nervousness. A fff outburst marking the arrival of Pan sets off a stampede, but it’s not clear whether the animals are running from us or, now, at us.
“What Humankind Tells Us” is embodied in the “Mitternachtslied” of Zarathustra; we learn that the world’s woe is deep and that all joy — “Lust” — wants to be eternal. Mahler’s setting, however, begins with the same rocking figure that marked the symphony’s first-movement attempt to achieve consciousness — as if the end of “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me” had been a traumatic experience and the symphony were reconsidering its quest. The rising figure of “Tief ist ihr Weh” is the same one the horns sounded near the beginning of the first movement; now we understand why they were so reluctant to go forward.
What the angels tell Mahler, however, is that God’s joy is indeed eternal, and so the fifth movement goes to church, where the mezzo and choirs of women and boys, performing the Knaben Wunderhorn song “Es sungen drei Engel,” remind us that Jesus has redeemed us all from sin. The choirs are directed to be “cheeky in expression,” suggesting the naive humor that will run through Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. It’s not at all clear that public affirmation can lift the shadow of private doubt.
Or that love can by itself find God. “What Love Tells Me” tells of two sensibilities. The first, initially in D, is an angel who’s timeless; the second, initially in F-sharp minor, is a mortal whose yearning for the reassurance of its fellow prompts the crises in the music (notably the “Weh” figure from the first and fourth movements). When these two appear for the second time, they negotiate; then the angel tries to go it alone, but the mortal won’t be silenced. Finally, after the flute has signaled the release of the mortal’s soul, the angel accepts the mortal’s pain and suffering as part of itself, creating a new (to humanity) kind of consciousness.
On his manuscript, Mahler wrote an epigraph for the movement: “Vater, sieh an die Wunden mein! Kein Wesen laß verloren sein.” (“Father, look upon these wounds of mine! Let there be lost no creature of Thine.”) The angel theme — prefigured in the previous movement’s “Komm und erbarme dich über mich” (“Come and have mercy on me”), recalling Amfortas’s words to the Grail Knights in Parsifal — is developed from the slow movement of Hans Rott’s Symphony in E. Rott was a student friend of Mahler’s who died mad in 1884, just short of his 26th birthday. The descending trumpet figure that initiates the movement’s final crisis also draws from Rott. Perhaps Mahler is asking God why Rott was lost.
Having begun in D minor, the Third Symphony ends in what should be a transcendent D major, though the tub thumping of the final pages underlines the difficulty of depicting the eternal in time. Instead it’s the first movement that explodes with “Lust.” Incorporating every instrument imaginable in its military-band racket, it rolls past the cellos’ allusion to the Second Symphony’s “je lieber möcht’ ich in Himmel sein” (“I would rather be in Heaven”) and surges to a riotous conclusion in F (the relative major of D minor), as if the transcendence promised by D major were irrelevant. At the end of the first movement, Mahler wrote “Dem der da kommen wird! Denen die da sein werden!” (“To the one who will get there! To those who will be there!”) Some will hear greater conviction in this opening hymn to Nietzschean becoming than in the closing one to Divine love.
Mahler suggested a pause between Part 1 (the first movement) and Part 2 (the remaining five). James Levine in his 2001 performances with the BSO inserted a full intermission at this point. Nelsons simply sat in the seat that Graham would occupy while the choruses — 60 women, 63 children — filed in. It made for an appropriate break.
Mahler marked “What the Flowers in the Meadow” Tell Me” to be “Very moderate. Don’t hurry. Graceful.” Nelsons was moderate enough, setting a comfortable, lilting tempo, phrasing delicately, and drawing luxuriant playing from the orchestra, right down to concertmaster Malcolm Lowe’s delicate solo at the end. For the most part, the storm sections are not marked to go faster; Nelsons didn’t need to up the pace to make them sound stormy.
In “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me,” Nelsons observed the sharp contrast between the scampering, characterful winds and the distant posthorn. The posthorn solos in this movement are most often played on some kind of trumpet. (Horenstein in that 1970 LSO recording had a flügelhorn.) But BSO principal trumpet Tom Rolfs owns an actual posthorn; he bought it to play in the orchestra’s 2013 performances of the Third under Daniele Gatti and, at Tanglewood, the late Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. The instrument, which resembles a miniature French horn, doesn’t have as pointed a sound as a trumpet. Thursday, it was hard to say just where offstage Rolfs had located himself. The effect, however, was magical, distant but not washed out, and Rolfs’s playing was as beautiful as Oft’s in the first movement.
Rolfs even managed to return to the stage unobtrusively, following Graham as she entered and the audience applauded, surely for both of them. In “What Humankind Tells Me,” she was refreshingly human, direct and not over-operatic, looking now and then at her score but mostly making eye contact with the audience. Nelsons was grave here, but as in the rest of the symphony, he didn’t try to make the movement into the last word on human existence. And I appreciated the natural sound of the John Ferrillo’s oboe and Robert Sheena’s English horn in the Wie ein Naurlaut (Like a sound of nature) outbursts. Mahler marked these hinaufzuziehen (pull up), and some conductors have interpreted that as meaning he wanted a glissando. Which is scarcely possible on a modern instrument unless you take your instrument apart and reconfigure it. The result, at least on Simon Rattle’s 1997 recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, sounds like a seagull. Ferrillo and Sheena sounded plausibly like Europe’s tawny owl, or perhaps the little owl that Janáček conjures in The Owl Has Not Yet Flown Away — symbols of nocturnal ill omen that undermine the human longing.
Graham was equally direct as the penitent in “What the Angels Tell Me”; the second time she sang “Komm und erbarme dich,” she floated the high F of “Komm” as if she had become an angel. The choirs were reasonably cheeky.
Marked “Slow. Peaceful. Deeply Felt,” “What Love Tells Me” can tempt conductors to take the movement ever so slowly in an attempt to sound profound. Levine with the BSO in 2001 exceeded 30 minutes. Leonard Bernstein’s two recordings, in the 25-minute range, have more shape, but Rafael Kubelik has demonstrated that you can take as little as 22 without sacrificing gravitas.
Nelsons began the movement as if time were irrelevant. His angel sections were celestial but never self-consciously reverent; when the strings needed to slow and stress a phrase, it registered as something different. The mortal sections, marked to go faster, were altogether different, thanks in no small part to the anguish registered by James Sommerville’s solo horn. Anguish ultimately gave way to anger and accusation, Nelsons creating a degree of tension that’s unusual in this movement, until Elizabeth Rowe’s flute released the soul.
What followed was slightly anticlimactic. Mahler at this point asks the conductor to proceed “broad to the end.” Nelsons seemed more in march mode. And though the timpani on the concluding page are marked f, here they rivaled the ff of the brass. This is common in performances of the Third; to hear what Mahler seems to have intended, you’d have to go to Benjamin Zander’s 2003 recording with the Philharmonia.
Approximate timings for the performance overall were 34:00; 10:00; 16:30; 9:30; 4:00; 21:30. Concluding pages aside, it was the best Third I’ve heard from a BSO music director (beating out Leinsdorf, Ozawa, and Levine), and among the best you’d hear anywhere, not just for the interpretation, but for the orchestra’s superb playing.
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.