LENOX -- It was as if two orchestras were out to play copycat. But you wouldn't have mistaken one for the other.
The Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Music Center orchestras played back-to-back Mozart-Mahler programs, each under a distinguished European conductor, at Tanglewood over the weekend. The BSO will return next weekend to finish its season but for the student orchestra, yesterday was adieu.
And a glorious season-ender it was: Mahler's First Symphony performed under the magisterial Christoph von Dohnanyi as a sequel to the senior orchestra's Mahler Fourth under Bernard Haitink. Compared to Haitink's meandering stream, Dohnanyi's Mahler wound up as a torrent.
In opening Mozart concertos, each program showed lots of other differences, too.
In terms of age, the two symphonies were neatly matched to performers.
Mahler's Fourth (BSO) is a mature work that ends with a trip to heaven. The First (TMCO) is a young composer's earth-shaker that ends, after a long journey though conquest and travail, with a hero's shout of triumph.
Dohnanhyi, who is 83, probed deeply into the First's bravado and questing. He avoided theatrics a la Bernstein, building slowly but steadily instead to the heaven-rattling conclusion.
Precision was the key -- not just accuracy, but getting notes and phrases to carry the maximum expressive effect. All Mahler's strange but wonderful touches -- fanfares, bird song, rustling, buzzing and scraping -- added not just color but the mysteries of life bound up with nature.
The first movement seemed slow to get off the mark, and the expanded horn section seemed a bit timid at the grand climax. Otherwise, swagger, sentiment and song (Mahler quotes himself) fed into one another. The dark humor of the second movement's mock funeral march yielded to a sweetly unsentimental middle section. Amid the opening and closing thunderbolts, the finale paused to look inward and yearn.
Emanuel Ax was his usual elegant self as soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9, the first of his 27 that reached mature heights. The interplay with the orchestra was delicious, especially in the witty finale. Apparent artlessness became art; the slow movement darkened seductively to become like an aria. Dohnanyi and a reduced orchestra delivered an accompaniment to fit.
On Saturday night, Haitink, 84, took the BSO on a leisurely stroll through the meadows and woods of the Fourth, lingering long over the myriad wonders to be heard along the way.
Momentum? There wasn't much of it. Instead, you got a sound of luminous depth and transparency, with acting concertmaster Elita Kang contributing stylish solo work. Only once, during in the adagio, did the orchestra raise its voice in passion -- and then only to sink into tranquility and usher in heaven.
Mellowness ruled. Sleigh bells jingled but this was a summer landscape, ripe and serene. Nobody was in a hurry to get anywhere.
That included Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling, who continued the languid pace, apparently at the conductor's behest, in the last movement's song, "Life in Heaven." It's a child's innocent vision of delicacies and saints awaiting her pleasure upstairs. As sung, it became a dark-hued suggestion of sin and redemption.
Slow-motion Mahler. My my.
In a Tanglewood debut, Isabelle Faust was the soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 -- the one with the Turkish bits. The German newcomer offered svelte, imaginative lines and tones, a bit of fancy fiddling and some musical squiggles of her own making. Perhaps you had to have a sweet tooth to savor it.