One expects an enormous experience from a rare live performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony. I last heard it in Symphony Hall nine years ago and reviewed it HERE, but Friday’s traversal by the Boston Philharmonic, lovingly prepared and superbly conducted by our own venerable Benjamin Zander, rose to something more than merely fabulous; it was superb in execution, expression, and faithfulness to Mahler’s specifically detailed intention. As I watched Zander’s wide-armed but well-framed beats, I kept thinking of those still famous, entirely respectful contemporary caricatures of Mahler’s own conducting, in which one can perceive gestural meaning and intense communication at every instant. The Third Symphony, like all of Mahler’s symphonies, has a score written with extreme detail and precision. Just to understand the hairpins < > on a single page can require hours if not days of study. But last night, whatever I saw on the score page I heard clearly in the hall, even from the rear of the first balcony.
Paul Henry Lang, in his doorstopper “Music in Western Civilization,” said of the Eroica Symphony (another Third) that in no other work did Beethoven “take such a fling at the universe.” Mahler’s grasp of symphonic form, representing the “New Symphony,” i.e., the Germanic symphony after Schumann and Brahms (leaving Bruckner off to one side), was cosmic but terrestrial at the same time, and certainly non-heroic — Mahler envisioned six movements as various kinds of earth-bound human experience, but within the limitations of what he could seize and sustain, most of the time with a melodicity that could have been embraced by Schubert. Part I of the Third Symphony, “Summer marches in” in Mahler’s designation that he later suppressed for publication, lasts half an hour and is frantic and desperate as it ends. The “Flower Piece” second movement is an emotional second thought about the second movement of his own “Todtenfeier” Symphony no. 2, but Mahler had even better third thoughts when he rewrote much of this movement as the “child’s vision of heaven” in the fourth movement of the Fourth Symphony. The Third’s third movement, “What the animals tell me,” derives from an earlier comic song, “Summer Detachment,” and dangerously elevates melodic ditziness to near grandeur, only to be relieved by a long, beautifully sad yodel for solo flugelhorn (“Posthorn,” offstage). The fourth movement, with alto solo, offers a welcome contrast to the orchestral hugeness of the preceding hour, but it cyclically relates with the harmony of “O Mensch!” — an F-sharp minor triad followed inquiringly by A minor (or major: compare mm. 11-14 of the first movement). (Sidelong glance: Mahler’s midnight text, “O Man! Take heed!”, from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, was also set as the final song in Lukas Foss’s Time Cycle, one of his best works.) Susan Platts, Canadian mezzo, sang with beautifully rich tone, sometimes with a below-pitch scoop resembling Flagstad’s (the score is marked “with mysterious expression”), and continued in the fifth movement, lovingly reinforced by the women of the Chorus Pro Musica (Jamie Kirsch, director) and a boys’ choir from St. Paul’s in Cambridge providing the bright dings and dongs.
We remember that when Mahler completed this symphony, he was 36 years old, about the same age as Beethoven at the time of the Eroica and the “Razumovsky” quartets — both works with long vision into the future. But Mahler’s Third doesn’t hint much at the future; it only wraps up the past in as boisterous (not to say mighty) a manner as possible, and Wagner was no help to him, except in amplifying the modern orchestra. Perhaps only in the sixth movement (without voices), which I have always considered the most difficult of the six to understand, did Mahler peer into what was surely coming, and this might be why he tentatively titled it “What love tells me.” The expression moves from middle register to high, mostly in the most expressive ranges of the predominating strings, and the score is full of ultra markings: “very passionately,” “very singing,” “with utmost strength,” and on the last page, “Nicht mit roher Kraft [crude power]. Gesättigten [saturated], edlen [noble] Ton.” Figure out, if you can, what that means for the tutti ff of a very large orchestra, in terms of expression that isn’t supposed to be triumphal. But Benjamin Zander communicated it with perfect clarity; he brought all of it off, and he brought it home not only intact but glowing.
The audience sprang up as one when the 100-minute-long symphony finished. Zander returned with the singer, not only for several bows but also to administer a hug to the principal trombone (Gregory Spiridopoulos). He then singled out others, especially Peggy Pearson, principal oboe (who had carried off several weirdly bent glisses in the fourth movement, marked hinaufziehen [pull up, stretch]), and Kevin Owen, principal horn (indeed, all eight horns sounded marvelous throughout the evening, never tiring), and several percussionists, some of whom, like the posthorn (Andrew Sorg), played offstage.
Again we thank Zander for his superlative execution, expression, and faithfulness to Mahler’s detailed intention.