Mahler was famously referring to his lengthy and challenging Third when he described composing a symphony like “building a world.” Certainly in its scope (orchestras are rarely tempted to pair it with anything else) and variety (six movements freely covering earth, nature, humanity, and the heavens), little in the musical world can match it. It requires a large orchestral ensemble that performs over the entire dynamic range, and adds a chorus of women and children and a mezzo solo to boot. Purely in terms of spectacle, it is a showpiece that orchestras increasingly offer to impress new audiences.
And that is exactly what they plan to do next month on a European tour that will include six performances of the Mahler Third. On the basis of the Tanglewood performance last Friday night, the orchestra is in top form for this tour (though in Europe the choral part will be sung by local ensembles). Andris Nelsons had the full measure of the large instrumental body, the dynamics from the most forceful (such as the very opening theme set forth by eight horns in unison) to the lightest of shimmers in the tremolo strings—so delicate as to make me look out the side of the Shed to see whether a light rain had started falling. The range of dynamics changed frequently, whether offered by a small section of the orchestra or a larger mass holding itself in reserve. The extended march of the first movement contained worlds of expression, from the most assertive to the most subdued. The wildly diverse depiction of Pan in summer (one of Mahler’s several indications of the character of the movement) never lost its drive of energy and color.
The characteristic types in the middle movements suggest all kinds of imagery that Mahler outlined at one point and later deleted. The second movement, mostly in a Minuet character, suggests the graciousness of the old dance genre, presented with mostly soft dynamics, though richly changing orchestral sonorities. The trio, filled with chattering sounds of birds, enlivened the mood. The outdoorsy mood remained in the fourth movement, a scherzo depicting the animals in the forest, culminating in an extended lyric posthorn solo (played off to the right of the audience in the Shed), suggesting the quiet, poignant restraint of a hot midsummer day. (The Berkshire weather cooperated nicely!
The fourth movement brings on the vocal soloist, mezzo Susan Graham, to sing Nietzsche’s words about being awakened from a deep dream and realizing that “The world is deep, deeper than the day knows.” This brief movement calls for a somber, sustained, smooth vocal production, which is just what Graham produces, a sense of somber stillness in the dark night.
The nocturnal mood ends suddenly as the children’s chorus enters, with bright bells, making bell-like sounds themselves. At once the women join in singing about three angels singing a sweet song. These are the “angels” in Mahler’s design, with joyous sound both in the voices and the instruments, repeatedly urging “Thou shalt not weep.”
The final movement, as Mahler left the symphony (he removed an intended seventh movement and held it in reserve to serve as the finale of the Fourth Symphony) is warmly rich in the intertwined lines of counterpoint in the strings, set forth in a mode that suggests a religious ceremony. A growing web of thematic motives (some from earlier movements) eventually builds to a massive climax that elicited an extended ovation. Nelsons enthusiastically signaled soloists: Toby Oft (trombone), Thomas Rolfs (trumpet [posthorn]), Robert Sheena (English horn), Elizabeth Rowe (flute), John Ferrillo (oboe), Tamara Smirnova (concertmaster), the massed horns, and trumpets, and percussion, and so on; mezzo Susan Graham, the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the new youth chorus, James Burton, conductor; and finally, everyone on that well-filled stage. If the six tour performances match this level of expression and precision, the Boston Symphony Orchestra will be seen to be in very good standing.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.