The one new and one familiar piece that the BSO is offering this week have tenuous connections. German composer Jörg Widmann’s Towards Paradise (Labyrinth VI), a BSO co-commission that’s getting its American premiere, is in effect a trumpet concerto written for Håkan Hardenberger. An early version of the familiar Mahler Symphony No. 1, which Andris Nelsons and the BSO played as recently as 2017, had as its second movement a trumpet serenade which the composer eventually deleted. That early version also had, as a title for its final movement, “Dall’Inferno al Paradiso.” At Symphony Hall on Thursday, Hardenberger and Nelsons took us pretty close to Paradise, and then the orchestra topped that with a surprise at the end.
This is the third Widmann work that Nelsons and the BSO have programmed: they did Trauermarsch in 2016 and Partita in 2018. Towards Paradise (Labyrinth VI) is, like Partita, a co-commission with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Nelsons’s “other” orchestra, and it had its world premiere, with Hardenberger and Nelsons, in Leipzig this past September. Widmann had this to say about the new piece: “After my hypertrophic virtuoso concert piece ad absurdum [his previous trumpet concerto] 20 years ago, I now felt the urge to compose a large-scale, angelic lyrical trumpet concerto: Towards Paradise. The trumpet soloist sets off on a labyrinthine journey through a wide spectrum of psychological and tonal zones, also featuring wild and craggy orchestral abysses leading into the open—towards a utopian state of suspension.”
The concerto is certainly large-scale: the wind section boasts a contrabass clarinet, and the percussion instruments include plate bells, tubular bells, crotales, Chinese cymbal, Thai gong, water tam-tam, high Brazilian tambourine, bongos, flexatone, rain stick, mounted castanets, temple block, and whip, alongside the more usual glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, cymbals, snare drum, wood block, and tam-tam. The score also calls for accordion, though I never managed to spot it on the Symphony Hall stage.
Towards Paradise is part of Widmann’s “Labyrinth” series, so I wasn’t surprised that it began with Hardenberger’s trumpet not at the center of the orchestral maze, where you’d expect to see a concerto soloist, but playing offstage, with the stage lights dimmed. After a minute or so Hardenberger appeared in the stage left doorway, serving up a series of phrases that suggested Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question. From the orchestra, Thomas Siders’s trumpet attempted to answer, but Hardenberger kept asking. As the stage lights came up, he settled into a stage left spot near the basses and the orchestra began to weave a tapestry underneath him.
Over the following half-hour, no questions were ever answered. Hardenberger eventually moved to the usual concerto solo spot at Nelsons’s left; from there he wandered back among the second violins, returned to his solo spot, moved to Nelsons’s right, then took up his original position. He maintained a kind of dialogue with the orchestra; he’d suggest an idea and the orchestra would take it up, often in unpredictable ways. One frenetic set of bleeps and blats prompted an explosion of polyrhythms from the six percussionists. Then a syncopated line was answered by solo whip. The brass initiated a chorale that went nowhere. A slow interlude with deep bells led to some impressive caterwauling from Hardenberger. The tuba and the contrabass clarinet played a ghostly duet.
Mostly there were anguished outbursts from soloist and orchestra alternating with periods of reflection. Hardenberger varied his sound with a variety of mutes; at one point he turned his back on the audience. Toward the end, he intimated a melody that was almost Mahlerian, though more the Mahler of the Tenth Symphony than the Mahler of the First. This too did not suffice; the orchestral explosions continued, and there was a moment of sheer blackness from the trombones. Hardenberger seemed to get lonelier as the concerto wound down. He returned to his spot near the second violins; the stage lights dimmed again, and Siders’s trumpet was heard once more. Finally Hardenberger exited through the stage right door. Once that shut, he finished with a brief volley of high squeals. Then silence. It was close to a minute before the stage lights came back up.
Was this a journey toward Paradise? Birth stage left, death stage right, and in between a lifetime of searching. But what a lifetime, what with Hardenberger exploring every trumpet sound known to humankind and inventing a few in the bargain, and the BSO answering in kind.
Nelsons’s 2017 interpretation of the Mahler First struck me as well thought out and attentive to the composer’s tempos, dynamics, and other markings, but at times more studied than spontaneous. In that context, Thursday’s reading was a revelation. It was the most imaginative Mahler First I’ve ever heard. It might also have been the best. It’s certainly worthy of release on the BSO’s house label.
The symphony at one point bore the title Titan, referring to a novel by Mahler’s favorite author, Jean Paul. Titan is a bildungsroman; Mahler’s First is an autobiographical bildungsroman in music. The hero wakes to nature, the buzz of cicadas, the chirping of birds, the fields, the flowers, the love/death call of trumpets from the nearby barracks. What was to have been the second movement (called Blumine, it was part of the first three performances, but Mahler eventually deleted it) is a romantic serenade: the hero is in love. In the scherzo, the young couple stomp through a rustic ländler and swoon over a café waltz. Then, without warning, we’re pallbearers in a satiric funeral march whose melody is a minor-key version of “Frère Jacques.” The hero has suffered a fate worse than death: he’s been ditched. In the finale, he rants, looks back wistfully at his sweetheart, rants some more and marches forward, looks back again, then tears himself away and strides forth, a champion, to meet the world.
The opening movement is marked “Wie ein Naturlaut,” and it begins with the strings playing harmonics in seven octaves of A. After two measures, the winds introduce a chain of descending perfect fourths, the motif on which the entire symphony is constructed. Even the cuckoo’s call, which in real life (and Beethoven’s Pastorale) is a descending major third, is played by the first clarinet as a descending fourth.
Nelsons didn’t take the introduction all that slowly, but he still created an atmosphere of hushed suspense. The offstage trumpets sounded distant but not too distant (as is often the case), and they didn’t rush (another problem in many performances). William R. Hudgins’s cuckoo clarinet followed Mahler’s direction in keeping its own time; the horns, as in 2017, were gloriously radiant. The first movement’s main theme 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 observes the dew on the grass and the harebells and is greeted by a merry finch. Mahler was an energetic walker and likely wanted a bracing jaunt here; Nelsons proceeded at an easy amble, and yet the sense of awe and wonder that I missed in 2017 was pervasive in 2021. Credit Nelsons’s shaping but also the orchestra’s vibrant playing, which made every bird call, every harebell, every dewdrop clear and distinct; Thomas Rolfs’s trumpet solos were a particular joy. As discovery turned to exuberance, the pace quickened, but even over the final ferocious pages, nothing clotted.
Nelsons’s second-movement ländler too didn’t seem to go quite as fast as Mahler’s 66 measures per minute, and here again it didn’t matter. The heavy-footed rhythm had thrust, the brass whooped, the winds were cheeky, the stopped French horns were exquisite. The simpering waltz dripped irony, suggesting infatuation rather than love; the section Mahler marked “Etwas frischer” really was fresher. Even the French horns’ 10-note transition back to the ländler got special care.
The funeral march was 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 grave tone set by Edwin Barker’s double bass and then Richard Svoboda’s bassoon was soon interrupted by John Ferrillo’s mocking oboe, perhaps imitating a game bird. The procession morphed into a sorrowful yet swinging klezmer outfit and then an oompah village band. Mahler instructs the band to play “mit Parodie”; Nelsons sped up, surely the right approach, and when he did so again for the band’s reappearance, even though there’s no instruction this second time, that too seemed right. The trio draws from another of Mahler’s Gesellen songs, “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz,” in which the blue eyes of the hero’s sweetheart send him away, out into the world. In other words, this is a funeral procession for the death of love. Nelsons was tender and songful here, with no little help from Ferrillo’s solo oboe. The march, when it returned, seemed to go at a faster tempo than before; this is not what Mahler asked for, but Nelsons made it feel as if the procession had halted too long already. Some conductors underplay the anguished outbreak that Mahler marks “Plötzlich viel schneller”; Nelsons did go much faster before letting the tempo drift back down. The closing ppp duet between cymbals and tam-tam is problematic; here it was actually audible.
The finale begins with an infernal cacophony and then an angry march struggling toward Paradise. At a measured tempo, the BSO’s trumpets and trombones made this a march of raw pain, with ample support from timpani and bass drum. A big, anguished transition led to the second subject, which flashes back to that original deleted second movement. Here, as in 2017, Nelsons was both regretful and passionate, and the French horns were heartbreaking as they reluctantly let go. A victorious rising melody follows before stalling out; in a daring move, Mahler “modulates” from C major straight to D, but then he acknowledges that D major has to be achieved the old-fashioned way. So the music returns to the opening movement, whose introduction frees the hero, after one last lovelorn look back, to go forward, his ticket to fame and fortune the symphony he’s just created. Nelsons was equally passionate in that second look back, with winsome solos from Hudgins, Ferrillo, and flutist Elizabeth Rowe. Then it was straight on to the triumphant finish, all eight French horns on their feet, Nelsons accelerating through the coda while still maintaining clarity.
If anything could follow that final blaze of glory, it was the orchestra playing “Happy Birthday” as Nelsons returned to the stage for a second bow. Thursday, it turned out, was his 43rd. He acknowledged the audience’s cheers with a short speech. I heard him lament the fact that he had no mic; I couldn’t make out much of the rest, except that he was grateful to everyone for coming and supporting the orchestra. He seemed just as gracious as the evening’s performances had been superb. Not a bad way to celebrate your birthday.
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.