The Boston Symphony Orchestra has had a particular relationship with Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. The BSO didn’t carry out the work till November of 1964, practically 50 years after the 1906 Essen premiere, however then, as if to make up for misplaced time, Erich Leinsdorf led the orchestra in 12 performances through the 1964–65 season. The BSO was additionally the primary orchestra to document the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft’s 1963 Crucial Version, which positioned the Scherzo earlier than the Andante moderato, setting off an argument in regards to the order of the inside actions that, 50 years later, nonetheless rages. On Thursday, Andris Nelsons made all controversy irrelevant as he cast his personal particular relationship with a studying that was savage, luxurious, and altogether magnificent.
The Sixth is popularly referred to as Mahler’s “Tragic” Symphony, nevertheless it may extra precisely be known as his symphony of myths and mysteries. The mysteries start with that “Tragic” subtitle. It doesn’t seem on both of the 2 variations of the rating that had been revealed in Mahler’s lifetime. It doesn’t seem within the live performance program for any of the symphony’s first 4 performances, all in 1906. It doesn’t flip up until the Vienna premiere, in January 1907, the place we see “Sechste Sinfonie (Tragische).” That’s the final time the symphony was given in Mahler’s lifetime. Was “Tragic” Mahler’s thought or that of the Vienna live performance producer? Did he approve or just acquiesce? Was he even consulted?
A few of the myths originate with Mahler’s spouse, Alma — which doesn’t imply they don’t have any foundation in truth. She tells us that the primary motion’s hovering F-major topic was Mahler’s try and depict her within the music. Mahler by no means mentioned as a lot; nobody has ever corroborated Alma’s assertion — or disputed it. She additionally tells us that within the Scherzo her husband “represented the unrhythmic video games of the 2 little youngsters, tottering in zigzags over the sand.” This will’t be proper: of their two daughters, Maria Anna was born in November 1902 and Anna Justine in July 1904. Mahler sketched out the Scherzo in the summertime of 1903, so even Maria Anna can hardly have been tottering round.
Then there’s Alma’s rationalization of the three hammer blows within the Finale. She tells us that Mahler described them as ‘the three blows of destiny, the final of which fells him [the symphony’s hero] as a tree is felled.’ These had been his phrases.” She would have it that her husband finally deleted the third one as a result of he was superstitious. However Mahler’s autograph appears to indicate 5 authentic hammer blows, two of which he eradicated earlier than the Essen premiere. That efficiency had three, however when he revised the symphony in the summertime of 1906, he eliminated the ultimate hammer blow, which was parallel in perform to the 2 he’d already deleted. So the finale was conceived with 5 hammer blows, it had three for a single efficiency, and two thereafter. Was Mahler actually superstitious? Had been the “three blows of destiny” his thought or Alma’s?
The proper order of the inside actions is more durable to kind out. Mahler’s sketches counsel an preliminary diploma of uncertainty. C. F. Kahnt was to publish the rating upfront of the Essen premiere, and at that time, Mahler made the choice to put the Scherzo second and the Andante third. When he arrived in Essen and started rehearsing the symphony, nevertheless, he concluded that the Andante ought to be second and the Scherzo third. That’s how he carried out the symphony in Essen and the way it was all the time carried out in his lifetime. Following the premiere, he instructed Kahnt to print a brand new version with the Andante previous the Scherzo, and to insert errata slips within the already printed Scherzo-Andante copies.
In 1963, nevertheless, the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft revealed a brand new Crucial Version with the Scherzo second and the Andante third. The IGMG editor, Erwin Ratz, defined that, earlier than his demise, Mahler had realized his mistake and reverted to the Scherzo-Andante order. Ratz’s “proof” was a 1919 telegram from Alma to Willem Mengelberg expressing the opinion that the Scherzo ought to go second. But when Mahler really had additional ideas in regards to the motion order, he would have communicated them to colleagues like Mengelberg and Bruno Walter, to not point out his writer. He didn’t. Neither did Alma converse up when the Sixth was carried out with the Andante previous the Scherzo, because it typically was throughout her lifetime.
Nonetheless, the authority of the 1963 Crucial Version was such that its Scherzo-Andante order was adhered to by most conductors, amongst them Leinsdorf, Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, Jascha Horenstein, Rafael Kubelik, Bernard Haitink, and Seiji Ozawa. The BSO constantly carried out the Sixth that means till October 2008, when music director James Levine did it Andante-Scherzo on Friday afternoon after which Scherzo-Andante on Saturday night and once more on Tuesday. The IGMG’s newest Crucial Version, from 2010, restores what Mahler seems to have settled on: the Andante second and the Scherzo third. However audiences have been weaned on the Scherzo-Andante order by way of many years of performances; it was Nelsons’s selection when he programmed the symphony in 2015, and it’s once more for the present block of three concert events. For all of the proof that Andante-Scherzo was Mahler’s last choice, one can argue that it went towards his thought of preliminary idea and that he modified his thoughts impulsively within the warmth of rehearsals.
This weekend, the Sixth has the invoice all to itself. That hasn’t all the time been the case. The invoice 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 concert events started with the Overture to Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and continued with Alexis Weissenberg taking part in Ravel’s G-major Piano Concerto; it might have been hour earlier than the symphony started. These days you’re extra more likely to hear the work by itself. That is smart; a median efficiency runs 80 to 85 minutes, and the Sixth is so monumental, so fraught, the rest would pale by comparability.
Nelsons Thursday was something however common. Mahler wrote down timings for the symphony on his Essen conductor’s rating: 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 may be this facet of Giuseppe Sinopoli and Michael Gielen’s last recording, nevertheless it was so pointed in its rhythms, so different in its dynamics, and so considerate in its phrasing that Thursday’s viewers was riveted. A loud if unlucky “Bravo” got here onerous on the heels of the Andante, the sort of outburst that’s not typically elicited by a gradual motion.
If the A-minor Allegro energico’s second topic represents Alma — and I believe it does — you can also make a case that the primary topic represents Gustav. In Nelsons’s studying, he’s not grim Demise a lot as an intriguing chthonic deity. Thursday’s Sixth was heavy to begin, with each weight and propulsion. The trombones had been black, the trumpets had been reducing, the timpani had been ferocious; it was all extra uncooked than refined. At bar 34, one final thriller offered itself because the trombones quoted a seven-note thought from the ultimate part of Franz Liszt’s First Piano Concerto. This isn’t some passing homage on Mahler’s half; the theme takes heart stage within the improvement, after which, undotted and given to the horns within the coda, it launches the triumphant concluding outburst of the Alma theme. One wonders whether or not Mahler’s borrowing was deliberate (by which case, why?) or unconscious.
Within the occasion, Nelsons made the Alma theme air to Gustav’s earth, gentle however extravagant in its exuberance. The event, so typically single-mindedly militant, had a joyous swagger, and the E-flat pastoral idyll — maybe an idealization of the Mahlers’ marriage — stopped time with out dropping the thread. The Liszt theme introduced the idyll up brief; Nelsons’s recapitulation served up readability the place so typically you hear solely congestion, and within the coda, when the Liszt theme rang out, the Alma countertheme within the decrease winds was nonetheless palpable. The “molto ritardando” with which Mahler marked the climax managed to cease and maintain going on the identical time; then the ultimate bars, all Alma, bespoke a loud jubilation that didn’t look destined to final.
It doesn’t, no matter whether or not a conductor follows with the Andante or the Scherzo. My objection to following with the A-minor Scherzo (other than the truth that Mahler made the choice to put the Andante second) is that, in its ordinary guise as a sadistic Ländler, it makes a cynical mockery of the Allegro energico’s A-major conclusion. Nelsons questioned moderately than mocked. His Scherzo, with its dancing skeleton of a xylophone, was spooky and unhappy moderately than sadistic, suggesting that the primary motion’s A serious was unstable moderately than downright illusory. The “Altväterisch” Trio, which creaks because it stumbles from 4/8 to three/8 to three/4, went at Mahler’s “merklich langsamer” (“perceptibly slower”) marking, as if reflecting on a extra gracious time.
With A serious having failed, the symphony (and maybe Gustav and Alma) seeks solace within the Andante, which is in E-flat, the important thing of the primary motion’s pastoral idyll. Warning indicators seem as early as bar 9, the place Mahler quotes a cadential phrase from “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n,” the primary of his Kindertotenlieder, suggesting that within the Scherzo Demise has claimed a number of youngsters. Nelsons made the primary topic apprehensive, alternating daylight and shadow, after which the odd rocking determine that separated the 2 topics turned a warning beacon. The primary topic would have it that all the pieces is all proper; the second sweeps all pretense away. Some 14 minutes in, there’s agony within the backyard; Nelsons gave it full measure, even when the offstage cowbells didn’t register. He additionally underlined the best way the motion limps residence, nonetheless in E-flat main bur sounding oddly minor.
The Finale of the Sixth is probably the most advanced piece of music Mahler ever wrote. It begins in C minor, as if to counsel that E-flat (the relative main) continues to be in play, however that by no means materializes, and although we’re handled to a couple wild rides in A serious, the symphony is all the time going to finish the place it started, in A minor. This last motion, like the primary three, shouldn’t be in regards to the “hero” a lot as it’s in regards to the couple, Gustav and Alma. Her second topic group violates protocol by attempting to take management of the event and the recapitulation, and Mahler, in extinguishing her themes, extinguishes his as properly. It’s the demise of the classical symphony in addition to the demise of a wedding.
Nelsons let all this unfold at its personal tempo, giving his gamers room to be expressive, holding the motion collectively by way of cautious consideration to Mahler’s many nuances of tempo. The germinating five-minute introduction was grounded within the inscrutable growls of Mike Roylance’s tuba, and Nelsons pointed up that quiet second when what shall be turn into a chirpy Alma theme pops up subsequent to the theme that may turn into its executioner. The exposition, when it firmed up, had a juggernaut power that finally steamrolled the 2 lush idyll sections. Right here the offstage cowbells had been unexceptionable, as had been the celesta and the rute. As for the hammer blows, Nelsons gave us all three, as he did in 2015 The third, which comes on the level (bar 783) the place the music makes a last futile gesture. This final blow is a redundant gesture; all hope vanished 10 bars earlier, when the trombones’ hopeful descent crash-landed in A minor. However it does no hurt. And Nelsons achieved the uninteresting, ax-like sound Mahler needed and had issue getting in his personal performances.
Ninety minutes is a really lengthy Mahler Sixth. But Nelsons’s studying mixed the easy 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 with out that latter group’s occasional longueurs. This Sixth was energetic moderately than demise. The orchestra by no means sounded strained or pinched; the brass had been notably wonderful, and I ought to have talked about the contributions of Robert Sheena (cor anglais) and James Sommerville (French horn) within the Andante. Towards the tip, you could possibly hear the lights starting to dim, after which Nelsons discovered majesty moderately than despair within the threnody of the coda. Is it an excessive amount of to hope that the BSO will document this Sixth for future launch?
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, artwork, movie, and books for the previous 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and presently for the Boston Globe.