The Boston Symphony Orchestra has had a special relationship with Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. The BSO didn’t perform the work until November of 1964, nearly 50 years after the 1906 Essen premiere, but then, as if to make up for lost time, Erich Leinsdorf led the orchestra in 12 performances during the 1964–65 season. The BSO was also the first orchestra to record the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft’s 1963 Critical Edition, which placed the Scherzo before the Andante moderato, setting off a controversy about the order of the inner movements that, 50 years later, still rages. On Thursday, Andris Nelsons made all controversy irrelevant as he forged his own special relationship with a reading that was savage, sumptuous, and altogether magnificent.
The Sixth is popularly known as Mahler’s “Tragic” Symphony, but it might more accurately be called his symphony of myths and mysteries. The mysteries begin with that “Tragic” subtitle. It doesn’t appear on either of the two versions of the score that were published in Mahler’s lifetime. It doesn’t appear in the concert program for any of the symphony’s first four performances, all in 1906. It doesn’t turn up till the Vienna premiere, in January 1907, where we see “Sechste Sinfonie (Tragische).” That’s the last time the symphony was given in Mahler’s lifetime. Was “Tragic” Mahler’s idea or that of the Vienna concert producer? Did he approve or simply acquiesce? Was he even consulted?
Some of the myths originate with Mahler’s wife, Alma — which doesn’t mean they have no basis in fact. She tells us that the first movement’s soaring F-major subject was Mahler’s attempt to depict her in the music. Mahler never said as much; no one has ever corroborated Alma’s statement — or disputed it. She also tells us that in the Scherzo her husband “represented the unrhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand.” This can’t be right: of their two daughters, Maria Anna was born in November 1902 and Anna Justine in July 1904. Mahler sketched out the Scherzo in the summer of 1903, so even Maria Anna can hardly have been tottering around.
Then there’s Alma’s explanation of the three hammer blows in the Finale. She tells us that Mahler described them as ‘the three blows of fate, the last of which fells him [the symphony’s hero] as a tree is felled.’ Those were his words.” She would have it that her husband eventually deleted the third one because he was superstitious. But Mahler’s autograph seems to show five original hammer blows, two of which he eliminated before the Essen premiere. That performance had three, but when he revised the symphony in the summer of 1906, he removed the final hammer blow, which was parallel in function to the two he’d already deleted. So the finale was conceived with five hammer blows, it had three for a single performance, and two thereafter. Was Mahler really superstitious? Were the “three blows of fate” his idea or Alma’s?
The correct order of the inner movements is harder to sort out. Mahler’s sketches suggest an initial degree of uncertainty. C. F. Kahnt was to publish the score in advance of the Essen premiere, and at that point, Mahler made the decision to place the Scherzo second and the Andante third. When he arrived in Essen and began rehearsing the symphony, however, he concluded that the Andante should be second and the Scherzo third. That’s how he conducted the symphony in Essen and how it was always performed in his lifetime. Following the premiere, he instructed Kahnt to print a new edition with the Andante preceding the Scherzo, and to insert errata slips in the already printed Scherzo-Andante copies.
In 1963, however, the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft published a new Critical Edition with the Scherzo second and the Andante third. The IGMG editor, Erwin Ratz, explained that, before his death, Mahler had realized his mistake and reverted to the Scherzo-Andante order. Ratz’s “evidence” was a 1919 telegram from Alma to Willem Mengelberg expressing the opinion that the Scherzo should go second. But if Mahler truly had further thoughts about the movement order, he would have communicated them to colleagues like Mengelberg and Bruno Walter, not to mention his publisher. He didn’t. Neither did Alma speak up when the Sixth was performed with the Andante preceding the Scherzo, as it generally was during her lifetime.
Nonetheless, the authority of the 1963 Critical Edition was such that its Scherzo-Andante order was adhered to by most conductors, among them Leinsdorf, Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, Jascha Horenstein, Rafael Kubelik, Bernard Haitink, and Seiji Ozawa. The BSO consistently performed the Sixth that way until October 2008, when music director James Levine did it Andante-Scherzo on Friday afternoon and then Scherzo-Andante on Saturday evening and again on Tuesday. The IGMG’s latest Critical Edition, from 2010, restores what Mahler appears to have settled on: the Andante second and the Scherzo third. But audiences have been weaned on the Scherzo-Andante order through decades of performances; it was Nelsons’s choice when he programmed the symphony in 2015, and it is again for the current block of three concerts. For all the evidence that Andante-Scherzo was Mahler’s final decision, one can argue that it went against his considered initial concept and that he changed his mind impulsively in the heat of rehearsals.
This weekend, the Sixth has the bill all to itself. That hasn’t always been the case. The bill for Leinsdorf’s first performances opened with the world premiere of John Huggler’s 15-minute Sculptures. When William Steinberg programmed the Sixth in October 1971, the concerts began with the Overture to Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and continued with Alexis Weissenberg playing Ravel’s G-major Piano Concerto; it would have been a good hour before the symphony began. Nowadays you’re more likely to hear the work on its own. That makes sense; an average performance runs 80 to 85 minutes, and the Sixth is so monumental, so fraught, anything else would pale by comparison.
Nelsons Thursday was anything but average. Mahler wrote down timings for the symphony on his Essen conductor’s score: 23 minutes for the opening Allegro energico, ma non troppo; 12 for the Scherzo; 15 for the Andante; and 31 for the Finale. Nelsons took 25, 14, 18, and 33. That’s as expansive a Mahler Sixth as there is this side of Giuseppe Sinopoli and Michael Gielen’s final recording, but it was so pointed in its rhythms, so varied in its dynamics, and so thoughtful in its phrasing that Thursday’s audience was riveted. A loud if unfortunate “Bravo” came hard on the heels of the Andante, the kind of outburst that’s not often elicited by a slow movement.
If the A-minor Allegro energico’s second subject represents Alma — and I think it does — you can make a case that the first subject represents Gustav. In Nelsons’s reading, he’s not grim Death so much as an intriguing chthonic deity. Thursday’s Sixth was heavy to start, with both weight and propulsion. The trombones were black, the trumpets were cutting, the timpani were ferocious; it was all more raw than refined. At bar 34, one last mystery presented itself as the trombones quoted a seven-note idea from the final section of Franz Liszt’s First Piano Concerto. This is not some passing homage on Mahler’s part; the theme takes center stage in the development, and then, undotted and given to the horns in the coda, it launches the triumphant concluding outburst of the Alma theme. One wonders whether Mahler’s borrowing was deliberate (in which case, why?) or unconscious.
In the event, Nelsons made the Alma theme air to Gustav’s earth, light but extravagant in its exuberance. The development, so often single-mindedly militant, had a joyous swagger, and the E-flat pastoral idyll — perhaps an idealization of the Mahlers’ marriage — stopped time without losing the thread. The Liszt theme brought the idyll up short; Nelsons’s recapitulation served up clarity where so often you hear only congestion, and in the coda, when the Liszt theme rang out, the Alma countertheme in the lower winds was still palpable. The “molto ritardando” with which Mahler marked the climax managed to stop and keep going at the same time; then the final bars, all Alma, bespoke a noisy jubilation that didn’t look destined to last.
It doesn’t, regardless of whether a conductor follows with the Andante or the Scherzo. My objection to following with the A-minor Scherzo (apart from the fact that Mahler made the decision to place the Andante second) is that, in its usual guise as a sadistic Ländler, it makes a cynical mockery of the Allegro energico’s A-major conclusion. Nelsons questioned rather than mocked. His Scherzo, with its dancing skeleton of a xylophone, was spooky and sad rather than sadistic, suggesting that the first movement’s A major was unstable rather than downright illusory. The “Altväterisch” Trio, which creaks as it stumbles from 4/8 to 3/8 to 3/4, went at Mahler’s “merklich langsamer” (“perceptibly slower”) marking, as if reflecting on a more gracious time.
With A major having failed, the symphony (and perhaps Gustav and Alma) seeks solace in the Andante, which is in E-flat, the key of the first movement’s pastoral idyll. Warning signs appear as early as bar 9, where Mahler quotes a cadential phrase from “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n,” the first of his Kindertotenlieder, suggesting that in the Scherzo Death has claimed one or more children. Nelsons made the first subject apprehensive, alternating sunlight and shadow, and then the odd rocking figure that separated the two subjects became a warning beacon. The first subject would have it that everything is all right; the second sweeps all pretense away. Some 14 minutes in, there’s agony in the garden; Nelsons gave it full measure, even if the offstage cowbells didn’t register. He also underlined the way the movement limps home, still in E-flat major bur sounding oddly minor.
The Finale of the Sixth is the most complex piece of music Mahler ever wrote. It begins in C minor, as if to suggest that E-flat (the relative major) is still in play, but that never materializes, and though we’re treated to a few wild rides in A major, the symphony is always going to end where it began, in A minor. This final movement, like the first three, is not about the “hero” so much as it is about the couple, Gustav and Alma. Her second subject group violates protocol by trying to take control of the development and the recapitulation, and Mahler, in extinguishing her themes, extinguishes his as well. It’s the death of the classical symphony as well as the death of a marriage.
Nelsons let all this unfold at its own pace, giving his players room to be expressive, holding the movement together via careful attention to Mahler’s many nuances of tempo. The germinating five-minute introduction was grounded in the inscrutable growls of Mike Roylance’s tuba, and Nelsons pointed up that quiet moment when what will be become a chirpy Alma theme pops up next to the theme that will become its executioner. The exposition, when it firmed up, had a juggernaut energy that eventually steamrolled the two lush idyll sections. Here the offstage cowbells were unexceptionable, as were the celesta and the rute. As for the hammer blows, Nelsons gave us all three, as he did in 2015 The third, which comes at the point (bar 783) where the music makes a final futile gesture. This last blow is a redundant gesture; all hope vanished 10 bars earlier, when the trombones’ hopeful descent crash-landed in A minor. But it does no harm. And Nelsons achieved the dull, ax-like sound Mahler wanted and had difficulty getting in his own performances.
Ninety minutes is a very long Mahler Sixth. Yet Nelsons’s reading combined the straightforward coherence you get from Boulez or Christoph von Dohnányi with the emotional extravagance of Horenstein, Barbirolli, Bernstein, Tennstedt, and former BSO percussionist Harold Farberman — and without that latter group’s occasional longueurs. This Sixth was full of life rather than death. The orchestra never sounded strained or pinched; the brass were particularly glorious, and I should have mentioned the contributions of Robert Sheena (cor anglais) and James Sommerville (French horn) in the Andante. Toward the end, you could hear the lights beginning to dim, and then Nelsons found majesty rather than despair in the threnody of the coda. Is it too much to hope that the BSO will record this Sixth for future release?
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.