Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 3 gets its due in a near-flawless performance at Tanglewood
LENOX — In his monumental Third Symphony, Mahler fulfilled his goal of creating a musical odyssey that "must be like the world. It must embrace everything."
In his final full-length concert of the season at Tanglewood Friday, Boston Symphony music director Andris Nelsons drew on his deep understanding of the composer's vision, eliciting from the orchestra, the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the new Boston Symphony Children's Choir — both prepared by BSO choral director James Burton — and vocal soloist Susan Graham a performance that can be called definitive.
The symphony, surely the longest in the classical repertoire, requires a vast orchestra to portray Mahler's struggle between the forces of darkness and light. In the half-hour first movement, with its growling lower strings and snarling brass, Nelsons stressed a bleak, funereal vision alternating with lighter moments, ending on a hopeful expression of possible triumph.
The orchestra, obviously galvanized by Nelsons' leadership, delivered a near-flawless performance. The lighter minuet, alternating sentiment with a somewhat sinister undertone, provided a gentle interlude before the third movement's paean to nature and its post horn serenade, performed off-stage by principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs with limpid textures reminiscent of the postal trucks sounding their horns while navigating the mountain passes of Austria and Switzerland.
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham conveyed a profound grasp of Friedrich Nietzsche's text describing midnight gloom ("the world is deep in its pain all joy seeks deep, deep eternity"), quickly relieved by the ethereal sleigh bells and Mahler's own uplifting words ("You mustn't weep"), sung to perfection by the women and children's choirs, as well as Graham. Angelic, for sure.
Nelsons led the concluding adagio ("slow, peaceful, deeply felt," according to Mahler's manuscript) with a sustained, almost daringly drawn-out tempo, spiritual, then triumphantly optimistic ("Behold my wounds! Let not one soul be lost," the composer wrote), concluding with rolling waves of the timpani's "rich, noble tone," the composer instructed. The BSO's principal timpanist, Timothy Genis, fulfilled Mahler's vision and Nelsons held the final peroration, seemingly into eternity.
The standing ovation was the most richly deserved of the season. Nelsons and the performers are taking the symphony on tour to Europe early next month, with eight performances at major festivals. Concluding his fourth full season as music director, he has achieved ever-greater interpretive depth and versatility. He ranks as the nation's leading conductor, and certainly among the world's most admired.
The BSO's season finale on Sunday afternoon continued the decades-long tradition of performing Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, on this occasion prefaced by two orchestrated Bernstein songs performed by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke with the BSO led by Christoph Eschenbach.
"Afterthought," a prequel for Lenny's ballet "Facsimile" and "Take Care of This House," a beautiful survivor from the wreckage of the woeful Broadway show "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" (a humiliating flop for Bernstein and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner), served as a postscript to Saturday night's three-hour Bernstein centennial gala. Cooke sang with conviction and clarity.
As for Beethoven's "Choral" Symphony, among the heroes of the performance were the well-matched soloists, soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Muller, Cooke, tenor Joseph Kaiser and baritone Thomas Hampson. The punishing vocal solos, duets and quartet have rarely been heard as effectively at Tanglewood.
Likewise, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, despite its pre-season travails, was in outstanding form, obviously a vindication of Burton's leadership that has further elevated the group's already formidable quality.
Unfortunately, until the symphony came alive with the choral entrance in the final "Ode to Joy," Eschenbach chose a brawny, lumbering approach in the opening two movements — especially the snail's-paced scherzo. The performance of the adagio, taken at an inappropriately brisk pace, lacked Beethoven's direction for a gentle, singing quality ("cantabile").
Still, the final choral cry for universal brotherhood and beauteous, godly joy rang out with strong affirmation, an uplifting conclusion to a season notable for much musical excellence, yielding many rewarding experiences for audiences and players alike.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
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