This week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts offer an opportunity for comparison with the performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the Resurrection, that Andris Nelsons and the BSO gave to open Tanglewood’s 2017 season. The Symphony Hall program has a bonus in the 2012 choral work Lux aeterna composed by Nelsons’s fellow Latvian Maija Einfelde and sung by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. One of two works being performed by the BSO this year to honor the centennial of Latvian independence, the six-minute piece makes an appropriate companion, since Lux aeterna means “Eternal Light.”
The text for Lux aeterna comes from the Communion antiphon for the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. It reads, in translation: “May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord, / with Thy Saints for evermore, / for Thou art gracious. / Eternal rest give to them, O Lord, / and let light perpetual shine upon them, / with Thy Saints for evermore, / for Thou art gracious.” Einfelde’s setting allows for optional percussion accompaniment; the BSO chose crotales, antique cymbals that registered as tiny aural points of light. The chorus splits into as many as 12 parts; the time signature is in constant motion, from 2/2 to 3/2 to 5/4 to 3/4. The piece is ancient and modern (with nothing in between) in equal measure; misty and mystical, it recalls Baltic composers like Arvo Pärt and Pēteris Vasks, but also Anton Bruckner.
Thursday’s performance, led by BSO choral director James Burton with the house lights turned down, was mystical but not too misty. It shimmered, it pulsed; at times it was almost pointillistic. The layering of voices made comprehension of the text problematic, but whenever you might expect to make out the words, you actually could. Conducting with contained gestures, Burton found the paradox at the work’s center, somber and simultaneously luminous.
Nelsons’s interpretation of the Resurrection Thursday was, no surprise, not very different from the one he delivered at Tanglewood. Timings were almost identical: 25 minutes for the first movement, 11 for the second, 10 for the third, 5 for the fourth, and 36 for the fifth. It’s a measured reading, carefully thought out, with minute attention to detail. Mahler’s opening Allegro maestoso, in C minor, is a funeral march, and it’s clearly the hero of his First Symphony who’s in the coffin. The movement is a sonata form of sorts (not everyone agrees on where the sonata components begin and end), but it’s more easily understand as a struggle between the funereal first thematic group and the more hopeful second, which dreams of redemption and hints at the “Ewig” (“Eternal”) theme that will emerge in the finale. The plainsong “Dies irae” (“Day of Wrath”) from the Requiem Mass gets into the fray, and every time there’s a glimmer of hope, the funeral music cuts it off.
As at Tanglewood, Nelsons created drama from discrete paragraphing and precise articulation. The opening outburst from the cellos and basses was, again, big and angry. But the E-major second theme, here tender and expansive, more than held its own, and Nelsons — helped no little by celestial first violins and first trumpet Thomas Rolfs — made the most of that moment at the end of the recapitulation when the theme rises to a transcendent F-sharp. Many readings of this first movement wallow in despair. Nelsons’s looked forward to the finale.
What was missing was sweep. Mahler’s Allegro maestoso designation and his original metronome mark (eventually deleted) suggest a tempo closer to 20 minutes. Back in the 1960s, that was the norm in recordings by Claudio Abbado, Bernard Haitink, Rafael Kubelik, Otto Klemperer, and William Steinberg. But Mahler timings have got slower and slower over the years, and these days, Nelsons’s 25 minutes doesn’t seem excessive. If you accept his approach, the result was outstanding.
Mahler marked a five-minute pause to follow the Allegro maestoso. We know he worried that the Andante moderato would be jarring if it followed immediately; at one point he had the “In ruhig fließender Bewegung” third movement placed second. He may also have thought his audience would need that much of a break to recover from the gravity of the first movement. Contemporary audiences have heard the Resurrection so often that they hardly need any break at all. In this case, Nelsons stepped off the podium and his two soloists, soprano Ying Fang and mezzo Bernarda Fink, came on stage and sat down. Nelsons then stepped back onto the podium and gave a brief speech that I couldn’t make out, but he seemed to be explaining why five minutes wasn’t necessary, concluding with a joke that prompted laughter. The break turned out to be three and a half minutes.
The Andante moderato flashes back to a happy time in the hero’s life; Mahler’s program describes it as “a memory, a ray of sunlight, pure and cloudless.” As at Tanglewoood, this was the highlight. Whether you hear the movement as a minuet or a Ländler, Nelsons, without excessive rubato, gave it a delicious lilt and sway. The note of disquiet — the movement is not quite cloudless — was muted in its first appearance, powerful in its second, where it breaks loose as a storm. The transition as the storm peters out and the first theme returns was especially effective. At 11 minutes, this performance was a little slower than the norm, and, I think, all the better for that.
The third movement, “In ruhig fließender Bewegung” (“In Peacefully Flowing Movement”), is Mahler’s remodeling of his Des Knaben Wunderhorn song “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt,” wherein St. Anthony, finding his church empty, goes to preach to the fishes, who listen with enthusiasm before resuming their venal ways. Nelsons’s reading flowed along peacefully enough, but I missed the mincing sarcasm of the song (the ruthe, for one, could have been more prominent), and all the nuances from the first two movements. Even that moment in the trio, marked “Sehr getragen und gesangvoll” (“Very held back and songful”), where the first trumpet seems to offer salvation got short shrift. The sea promises to open up and you half expect Wagner’s Rhinemaidens to emerge, but here the waves just pulsed on.
The fourth movement, “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”), adapts another of Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn songs, this one about a child trying to make her way to heaven. Bernarda Fink, who was also Nelsons’s mezzo at Tanglewood, does not possess the kind of voice that can fill Symphony Hal, but she makes intelligent use of what she has. As at Tanglewood, she sang off book and made continuous eye contact with the audience. Mahler wanted the mezzo to sing like a child here; Fink conveyed the innocence of a child, and she didn’t overenunciate or overact. It was an entirely natural performance that benefitted greatly from John Ferrillo’s sumptuous oboe solo.
The Resurrection concludes with the longest symphonic movement Mahler ever wrote. The Day of Wrath arrives; he gives us terror, horror, a voice crying in the wilderness — and, at last, the “Resurrection” theme, which turns out to be a rhythmic variation on the “Ewig” motif from Wagner’s Siegfried: “Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich” (“Eternal I was, eternal I am”) is what Brünnhilde sings to Siegfried after he’s braved her ring of fire. The dead rise and, to the “Dies irae,” march in an extraordinary sequence; Mahler’s “trumpets of the Apocalypse” sing out, and then his “bird of death,” embodied by flute and piccolo, before the chorus enters to assure us of immortal life.
It’s a sprawling movement and hard to hold together. Nelsons created distinct paragraphs, as if we were hearing from various anguished souls, but, as at Tanglewood, I didn’t get a sense of overall shape. Everything finally come into focus at what Mahler called “Der große Appell” (“The Great Call”); the antiphonal offstage brass fanfares were well calibrated, and the on-stage flute (Elizabeth Rowe) and piccolo (Cynthis Meyers) were poignant. Fang had a bright clarity and, like Fink, an unaffected manner in expressing the text. At this point, both she and Fink were on book, but they hardly glanced at the score.
The TFC, also on book, was almost ghostly in its opening “Auferstehen”; thereafter we got rich and burnished, with no barking in the “Bereite dich.” The climax, starting with “Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben,” was slow but under complete control; Nelsons’s tempo allowed “Was du geschlagen” to go slightly faster, as per Mahler’s marking, without seeming rushed. The closing pages were about as expansive as possible — and as heavenly.
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.