Concert Review: The Boston Symphony Orchestra plays Mahler’s Symphony no. 2

If Thursday’s performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was marked by some untidiness, the broad picture to emerge was one of often thrilling, Apollonian grandeur.

Mahler’s Symphony no. 2, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi, Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, through October 1.

Photo: Stu Rosner

Christoph von Dohnányi, back for the second and final week of his fall residency, conducing the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony no.2. Photo: Stu Rosner

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Few pieces of music embrace as many contrasting moods or express them more passionately than does Mahler’s Symphony no. 2. Written between 1888 and 1894, the so-called “Resurrection” Symphony begins in funereal gloom and ends in existential triumph, in between traversing everything from the naïve to the sardonic to the mystical. Mahler once famously said that the symphony as a genre should “be like the world: it must contain everything.” Surely his Second does that in a particularly obsessive way, unique among its eight completed siblings.

Due to it’s content and size, it’s also a special piece, one that can (and should) feel uniquely ceremonial. So it’s little surprise that the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) subscription concerts of the work this weekend mark only the second time it’s appeared at Symphony Hall since 2000. Christoph von Dohnányi, back for the second and final week of his fall residency, certainly seems to appreciate the momentous qualities of the piece – after all, his performances of it are few and far between. If Thursday’s reading was marked by some untidiness, the broad picture to emerge was one of often thrilling, Apollonian grandeur. Soprano Camilla Tilling and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly joined Dohnányi, the BSO, and Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC), making its season debut.

It’s a testament to the versatility of Mahler’s music that it can succeed so profoundly in the hands of conductors so different as the subjective extrovert Leonard Bernstein and the coolly clinical Pierre Boulez. Dohnányi’s view on Thursday more or less stuck to the middle, but hewed perhaps a bit more to the objectivist, Boulez-ian approach. For my money, the Second Symphony, of all Mahler’s work, benefits from Dionysian excess, and that was what I missed from time to time on Thursday night. Still, Dohnányi’s reading has much going for it, including moments of fierce drama and, in the finale, some spectacular singing.

His take on the first movement Thursday was notable for its tautness and general lack of sentimentality. Some of its finest moments were its quietest: the many soft passages for strings – especially trills and tremolandi – featured playing of intense focus that ably cushioned the many wind and brass solos going on around it, notably Robert Sheena’s plaintive English horn. In its bigger moments, balance issues cropped up. From my seat, the strings, especially in their upper range, sounded thin and tended to get covered by brass and percussion. At the huge climaxes of the movement, Dohnányi made little effort to delineate what was going on – there was a ferocious din, impressive in its own right, but not necessarily what Mahler’s score, with its rigorously terraced dynamics, suggests should be the case.

The second movement, following a five-minute or so pause (which Mahler’s score indicates but which conductors often ignore), was filled with charm and delicacy. This is strange music, seemingly out of place in the context of the other four movements (Debussy dismissed it as reactionary and “too much like Schubert”), but, when heard after that all-important break from the first movement, it seems not nearly so trite. On Thursday it glowed with an easy warmth, Dohnányi teasing out Mahler’s lyrical counterpoint throughout.

In the third movement scherzo, the music’s rustic, acerbic character was reflected at times a bit too well, with some tentative entrances in its more exposed sections. But the overall structure and spirit of the music came across clearly, as did the brilliance of Mahler’s forward-looking orchestration.

Photo: Stu Rosner

The BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC), making its season debut, perform Mahler’s epic Symphony no. 2. Photo: Stu Rosner

Prefacing the big finale, mezzo-soprano Connelly brought a beautiful simplicity to the fourth movement, “Ulricht,” its mystery only broken by some shaky brass intonation at the beginning and a central section that felt a little too fast. This is music that’s been sung unforgettably by some great voices, Christa Ludwig and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson among them. Now add Sarah Connelly to that list. Her diction was precise and the creamy, warm tone of her voice the aural picture of otherworldly innocence.

Along with the finale of the Sixth Symphony, the closing movement of the Second is probably Mahler’s greatest theatrical canvas. It’s sprawling and scenic, recounting and building on music previously heard in the symphony, but the result should never feel episodic. Thursday’s reading of it was mesmerizing. Dohnányi basically let the music speak for itself, allowing it to unfold with clarity and awesome inevitability. Towards the end there were again some balance issues – placing the soloists behind the orchestra in the choir, though logical, meant that both, especially soprano Camilla Tilling, struggled to be heard – but the tenor of the Mahler’s message of redemption came across with spine-tingling lucidity.

The TFC has rarely sounded in better form than on Thursday night, delivering the finale’s towering peroration with the same electrifying energy and intensity they brought to its hushed beginnings. And organist James David Christie made the most of his brief, (literally) earth-shaking appearance over the closing bars. Performances run through Tuesday: catch them while you can.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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