Opening Night at Tanglewood: Michael Tilson Thomas serves Mahler and the BSO most splendidly in the “Resurrection” Symphony

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Michael Tilson Thomas leads the BSO in Mahler's Symphony No. 2 on Opening Night. Photo Hilary Scott.
Michael Tilson Thomas leads the BSO in Mahler's Symphony No. 2 on Opening Night. Photo Hilary Scott.

Opening Night at Tanglewood
Friday, July 9, 8:30 p.m. Shed
Mahler, Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”

I. Allegro maestoso. Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck
II. Andante moderato. Sehr gemachlich
III. In ruhig fliessender Bewegung
IV. Urlicht. Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht
V. Im Tempo des Scherzos. Wild herausfahrend

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Layla Claire, soprano
Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano
Tanglewood Festival Chorus,
John Oliver, conductor

On taking my seat in the Music Shed, I was surprised to see the gentlemen of the BSO in shirtsleeves — and it was a pleasant surprise. Their playing of Mahler’s Second was very much a shirtsleeves sort of performance, and that was also a pleasant surprise. I’ve heard that Michael Tilson Thomas had very little rehearsal time for this concert. This made itself heard, I thought, in a certain lack of concentration in the fifth movement — entirely unlike the first three movements, which were intensely focused, if anything. Even with this proviso, the performance was an impressive success. MTT took charge of the orchestra with total confidence and produced his personal sound and interpretation from the orchestra with authority and conviction — and it was precisely this that made the performance so outstanding.

I have to say that I was almost reluctant to go to the concert, because Bernard Haitink’s Tanglewood performance two years ago was both beautiful and deeply moving, and seemed to achieve a sort of ultimate statement of the Mahler Second. MTT’s performance lacked Haitink’s tonal refinement, as well as his mystical loftiness, but not because of any lack of ability, rather because Thomas is not interested in those values. Sophisticated execution and spiritual exaltation only get in his way. His Mahler (I noted this in the Third as well) is a more down-to-earth affair. He simply accepts the fact that Mahler wrote good music which can stand on its own, without any special case being made for it. Haitink approaches Mahler from the same conviction, but in Massachusetts we hear mostly James Levine’s Mahler — over and over again, as he strives to justify Mahler through maniacal perfectionism. Building up to 2011, the centenary of Mahler’s death, he has exposed his audiences to repeated performances of the symphonies, some of which succeed brilliantly, and others of which fail to get to the essence of things — a self-indulgent exercise which proves rather frustrating for the listener. The concert programs of a major symphony orchestra should not be a Mahler laboratory. Hence it was refreshing and joyful to hear Maestro Thomas cut through to the quick and give us these unpretentious, but probing, and deeply satisfying performances. Larry Wallach discusses the Mahler Third for us, while I shall concentrate on the Second.

From the first agitated bars it was clear that this would be the kind of performance Boston audiences aren’t accustomed to. The strings were darker, and the attacks had an aggressive bite. The dynamic scale was wide: ff and fff were really loud and filled the shed. Pianissimi were truly that, but they never disappeared into the background noise, which was much less than usual, because the audience was raptly involved in the music. MTT had a perfect ear for the shed’s acoustics: everything was clear and rightly proportioned. He wanted the double basses, the trombones, and the tuba to do their damnedest in rasping away at their parts. In general he excavated the score for telling and unfamiliar lines, which occasionally dominated more familiar ones. The first movement unfolded with the highest concentration, although Thomas played it straight through, without emphasizing structural “pointers,” as Haitink or Levine might do. Both the Second (and, above all, the Third) sounded strikingly modern, and I could easily understand why Mahler was considered advanced in his time, tempting me for once to take back what I have said about Mahler being a final gasp of the nineteenth century.

The tempo of the second movement was just right, “gemächlich,” but animated nonetheless, a bit faster than usual, in fact, as was the third. The overall pulse was light, but accents were strong, giving the music its due weight. Inflections were also strong, and portamenti were evident. Assimilations from and allusions to popular and folk music were played to the hilt, and there was no harm in that — to the contrary: MTT understands better than most the modernism in Mahler’s open relationship to the music of the streets, taverns, and music halls.

The only real disappointment in this performance was Stephanie Blythe’s unengaged and run-of-the-mill singing of Urlicht. In an earlier version of this review I stated my belief that Ms. Blythe used amplification, but apparently I’m wrong in this assumption, as I have been notified by the BSO Press Office. I’ve praised her work in the opera house many times, and I know her voice is large, but I was not prepared for it to resonate as it did in the Music Shed, and, unlike Layla Claire’s soprano, it did not convey a clear sense of location. Such are the tricks of voices and spaces. I apologize to the BSO and to Ms. Blythe.

In spite of this, the last movement held its own most admirably, even if it was not transporting, as Haitink’s was. MTT had the brilliant idea of making the the great outburst of the full orchestra at the beginning, and especially its return later on, an eruption of pure noise. The musical and instrumental details were still apparent, but MTT gave us a great Ivesian ruckus. The brass playing, as it was throughout, magnificently spirited, if a trifle rough, which was all for the better. Later in the movement there was a marvellous effect of massed strings. Mysticism was replaced by an impression of the earthy enthusiasm of the traditional German Singverein, which underscored the relationship of the Second with Beethoven’s Ninth. Yes, I could smell beer.

As for the the Third, I have written how I have struggled with it, finding it unconvincing, after my youthful enthusiasm for it. Thomas’ reading put all that to rest. He understands what it’s really about, and, after hearing his performance, I have some inkling of it as well.

On both occasions, I left the Shed satisfied that Mahler had received his full due: MTT truly honored the composer by approaching his music so directly and honestly, and it was throughly refreshing to hear the BSO play with rolled-up shirtsleeves, both literally and musically.

2 thoughts on “Opening Night at Tanglewood: Michael Tilson Thomas serves Mahler and the BSO most splendidly in the “Resurrection” Symphony

  1. Thank you for writing what I believe is by far the best review of this performance. Both the strengths and liabilities were presented honestly, and I appreciate your strong and informed commentary. As a longtime SFS subscriber who has just moved to Albany, and a little biased when it comes to MTT, I truly appreciate the fair treatment that you gave him.

    1. I look forward to having the opportunity to review most of MTT’s forthcoming SF Symphony season for BR. I don’t hear too many criticisms in San Francisco about his essential musicianship. The orchestra, which became “world-worthy” at the end of the DeWaart era, has remained so and gone from strength to strength. There is some feeling, though, that there is a lot of music out there not being played, so we can hear yet more Ravel, Mahler, Ives, Copland, Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

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