Lasting somewhere between 90 and 110 minutes, Mahler’s Third Symphony is the longest symphony in the mainstream repertoire. It’s also the most ambitious. The six movements (at one point Mahler had planned for seven), with mezzo-soprano and choruses, chart nothing less than the evolution of human consciousness, from its inert beginnings all the way to its awareness of Divine love. The final version of the program Mahler drew up (he eventually discarded it) progresses from “Pan Wakes; Summer Marches In (Bacchic Procession)” to “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me,” “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me,” “What Humankind Tells Me,” “What the Angels Tell Me,” and “What Love Tells Me.” That’s a challenge for any conductor and orchestra, and it’s not taken up very often. Friday at Symphony Hall, Ben Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, joined by mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, women from Chorus pro Musica, and choristers from Saint Paul’s Choir School (Harvard Square), offered their first performance of the symphony in 20 years, and it was a memorable one.
The ascent to the Divine isn’t as simple as Mahler’s program might make it sound. Schopenhauer (represented by Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung) and Nietzsche (Also sprach Zarathustra and Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) do battle in the opening movement. Mahler draws on August Binzer’s 1819 student song “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus,” which defiant members of the German-nationalist Leseverein der deutschen Studenten Wiens sang in December 1878 after the government dissolved the organization, some of whose members were part of Mahler’s student circle. So the tune has a political import: to Richard Strauss its use here suggested the proletariat marching down Vienna’s Prater on May Day. In 1905, Mahler himself marched with workers on the Ringstraße.
The tune has a musical legacy as well: It got taken up, in various forms, by Brahms in his Academic Festival Overture and the finale of his First Symphony, by Hans Rott in the finale of his E-major Symphony, and by Mahler in the deleted “Blumine” movement of his First Symphony. But Mahler does a lot more “borrowing” in the Third. One phrase from the posthorn section of “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me” reprises a theme from Glinka’s Capriccio brillante. And the final Adagio harks back to the slow movement of Rott’s symphony, the Glaubensthema from Parsifal, and perhaps even the Lento assai from Beethoven’s final string quartet. How much of this history Mahler was consciously aware of in 1896 is hard to say. He surely had Parsifal in mind when he wrote the Adagio. And it might not be too far-fetched to see in the symphony a tribute to Mahler’s student friend Rott (“a musician of genius”), who died in a Viennese asylum in 1884, just a month short of his 26th birthday.
The Third begins with eight French horns blasting out a Dorian-mode theme that Mahler called “Der Weckruf” (“The Waking Call”). Pan wakes for just a few seconds at first, but as the movement progresses, Mahler ingeniously melding sonata form with narrative, the periods of Schopenhauerian struggle grow shorter and Nietzsche’s “gay science” prevails. Mahler also envisioned this movement as a battle between winter and summer; one of his early titles for the symphony was Ein Sommernachtstraum (“A Summer Night’s Dream”), so no surprise that summer not only marches in but triumphs.
Zander’s eight horns made a powerful statement to start, and he depicted the heavy tribulation of winter as it struggles to free itself from inertia and gloom. Everything in Mahler’s sound picture emerged front and center: the solos from concertmaster Gregory Vitale and principal horn Kevin Owen, the squealing four piccolos and two E-flat clarinets, the celestial harps, the off-stage snare drum, the ferocious timpani, the thwacking bass drum and nicely audible tambourine. But Gregory Spiridopoulos’s trombone solos towered above all. The trombone speaks for Schopenhauer, for winter; Spiridopoulos spoke with a black tone and phrasing that tore at the heart. Mahler marked the trombone’s second appearance “Sentimental”; Spiridopoulos was that and more.
Zander had his own moments. The first Nietzsche/summer march breaks down when a tormented phrase from the slow movement of Rott’s symphony intrudes; Zander made sure we didn’t overlook that, and he also underlined the passage where, after the final trombone statement, Mahler has the cellos allude to what follows “je lieber möcht’ ich in Himmel sein” (“I would rather be in Heaven”) in his song “Urlicht.” What didn’t always succeed were the marches themselves; taken at a moderate tempo, they came off as scrupulously played but short on swagger and mischief. A moderate tempo can certainly work in this movement; Andris Nelsons and the BSO demonstrated as much here back in January 2018. But Nelsons’s reading offered more rhythmic snap, crackle, and pop.
The coda also seemed problematic. Mahler’s instructions start with “Wieder vorwärts” and continue “Drängend” and “Sehr drängend,” so he clearly wanted the conductor to press on to the end. I’ve always had a soft spot for Jascha Horenstein’s traversal of this section in his 1970 London Symphony Orchestra recording: He ignores the score markings and has his players strut to the finish line, where they arrive poised and suave rather than breathless and sweaty. Most conductors adhere to what Mahler asked for, and no blame can attach to that. In his 2003 recording of the Third with the Philharmonia of London, however, Zander’s forces sprinted ahead to a degree that disconcerted some reviewers. On Thursday, he was more restrained; on its own, his tempo might have been unexceptionable, but hard on a march that was all but contrapuntal, it still seemed too fast.
What follows this first movement is the agonized upward journey of the spirit. The flora of “What the Flowers in the Meadow 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 glimmer of consciousness. “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me” is almost more about what we have told the animals. Drawn from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn song “Ablösung im Sommer,” the movement chirps and scurries until a post coach makes its way through the wood and every creature stops to listen to the distant posthorn. In Nicholas Lenau’s poem “Der Postillon,” the postilion stops the coach near a churchyard and blows a salute to the old friend who lies buried there; here the friend could well be Rott. 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” reprises the horns’ call 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 was prefigured in the previous movement’s “Komm und erbarme dich über mich” (“Come and have mercy on me”), words that recall Amfortas’s words to the Grail Knights in Parsifal. Here Mahler draws on both the Glaubensthema from Parsifal and the slow movement of Rott’s symphony. 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 “je lieber möcht’ ich in Himmel sein” allusion 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 listeners 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, when he conducted the Third with the BSO, used to call for an intermission at this point. Nelsons in 2018 sat in the chair the mezzo would occupy while his choruses filed in. Here the Chorus pro Musica women — 63 strong — were already in place, and Zander paused only long enough to allow Platts to enter and seat herself.
Mahler marked “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me” “Tempo di Menuetto” but added “Very moderate. Don’t hurry. Delightful.” On his Philharmonia recording, Zander adopted the tempo of a quickish minuet. Friday’s reading leaned more to the moderate and delightful, almost a Ländler, with no want of rubato or Viennese lilt. The storms didn’t register as excessively severe; the flowers hardly seemed to bend, never mind break. Some conductors take a darker view of this movement; Zander chose to bask in bucolic sunshine.
“What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me” also started at a comfortable, sometimes chugging, clip, with cheerful cuckoo calls from Rane Moore’s clarinet, a brief nightingale burst from Lisa Hennessy’s flute, and no squabbling among the animals. Mahler initially wrote the crucial posthorn part for trumpet; in the manuscript he replaced trumpet with flügelhorn, and then in the second edition he decided on an actual posthorn, which looks like a miniature French horn. The solos are most often played on trumpet, but Zander’s Philharmonia recording of the Third featured a posthorn, and BSO principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs has been playing the posthorn that he owns in that orchestra’s recent performances.
Zander has described the posthorn as a “famously intractable” instrument; perhaps that’s why for this performance trumpet-section member Andrew Sorg opted for a D trumpet with a flügelhorn mouthpiece, a combination that, Zander says, Leonard Bernstein also used. It worked. As best I could tell from my seat at the back of the second balcony, Sorg had positioned himself at the second-balcony level, near the stage on the Mass Ave side. The distant perspective was just right, and the playing was wistfully reflective. At times Sorg seemed to be getting ahead of the orchestra, or perhaps that was Zander’s interpretive choice. The movement gathered energy as Zander drove toward the horn-and-trombone fanfare that harks back to Mahler’s Second Symphony, and at that point, the Chorus pro Musica women rose. They don’t sing till the fifth movement, but the fanfare covered their movement, and their standing seemed to signal the arrival of homo sapiens into the symphony.
“What Humankind Tells Me” has to sound timeless, and here Zander, slow but not agonizingly so, achieved just that. Platts, holding a score but looking mostly at the audience, consoled and lamented; like Susan Graham for Nelsons in 2018, she was refreshingly human. This movement brings another instrumental challenge in the bird call that solo oboe (four times) and cor anglais (once) make. The manuscript at these points reads “Der Vogel der Nacht!”; it’s possible that Mahler was thinking of the Hölderlin poem “Die Kurze,” where the bird of night flies so close that you have to shield your eyes. The score says simply “Wie ein Naurlaut” (“Like a sound of nature”), but Mahler also wrote “hinaufzuziehen” (“pull up”), which suggests that he wanted a glissando, even though, as he well knew, that’s not possible unless you take your instrument apart and reconfigure it. It’s been done; on Simon Rattle’s 1997 recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the call sounds like a seagull, hardly a bird of the night. For this performance, Peggy Pearson experimented with fingering and used a softer reed; the result, from her oboe and Andrew van der Paardt’s cor anglais, mimicked the call of the tawny owl, which for Mahler might well have been a symbol of nocturnal ill omen that undermines the human longing.
For “What the Angels Tell Me,” Zander had the 22 Saint Paul’s choristers up in the second balcony left, near the stage. Both they and the Chorus pro Musica women wore masks, so enunciation was somewhat muffled. Against the strict tempo of the choristers’ “bimm . . . bamm,” Platts sang with welcome license as the penitent who has trespassed on the Ten Commandments; she underlined her “Komm und erbarme dich über mich” in a way that signaled the musical phrase’s importance in the final Adagio.
Marked “Slow. Peaceful. Deeply Felt,” “What Love Tells Me” prompts the question “How slow is slow?” Georg Solti in his 1968 London Symphony recording wasn’t very, whipping through the movement in 19:20. Levine with the BSO in 2001 exceeded 30 minutes; Bernstein regularly took 25 or so. Nelsons in 2018 was closer to 22, a timing that’s worked for conductors and audiences who don’t think you have to proceed ever so slowly to be profound.
Zander’s Adagio ran some 24 minutes, at the upper range of what Mahler likely envisioned. He was certainly at his best in this movement. The Chorus pro Musica woman sat when the second violins entered at bar 12, another choice that looks odd on paper but seemed perfectly natural in the hall. Zander made the D-major sections reverent; like the music of “What Humanity Tells Me,” they felt timeless but never dragged. He gave full measure to the anguish of the F-sharp minor sections, quickening the tempo almost imperceptibly, pointing up the Rott and Parsifal connections, and getting fine support from Owen’s solo horn. The final cataclysmic climax led inevitably to Hennessy’s flute releasing the soul. On the final page of the score Mahler asks the timpani to play f; Zander is one of the few conductors who doesn’t let them rival the ff of the brass, and the result Friday was that the peroration sounded noble, as Mahler wanted it to, and not martial, as it so often does.
My approximate timings for the performance overall were 35, 10, 18, 10, 5, 24 — which is in line with the revered recordings of Horenstein and Bernstein. Another listener might have deemed the room Zander afforded his players compensation for any lack of rhythmic energy and variety. Certainly one cannot hear the Third too often when it’s performed at this level.
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.