Stand up for Mahler! Mahler’s Third at Tanglewood with Frühbeck de Burgos, Anne-Sofie von Otter, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra

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Anne Sofie von Otter performs Mahler 3 with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood July 6 2013. Phoo by Hilary Scott.
Anne Sofie von Otter performs Mahler 3 with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood July 6 2013. Phoo by Hilary Scott.

Saturday July 6, 2013

Mahler – Symphony No. 3

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Conductior – Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Anne Sofie von Otter – mezzo-soprano
Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver – conductor
PALS Children’s Chorus, Andy Icochea Icochea – conductor

Mahler’s Third Symphony is a sprawling, evening-long monster of a piece. Nothing else can or should be programmed with it; once it is over, there is nothing more to be said. It is also the composer’s break-out work, despite the obvious power and accomplishment exhibited by his previous symphonies. In the First and Second Symphonies, Mahler focuses on himself: on his rebellions against conventions and stultifications of society in the First, and against the notion of mortality and the limitations of the human condition in the Second. All of this is expressed as the musical response of a deeply sensitive and conflicted individual. The break-out achieved by the Third is its transcendence of the individual; Mahler succeeds in identifying his compositional voice or musical persona with the entire cosmos, from the life forms of nature to the mysteries of humanity and of the divine to the transcendent force of love. Obviously, there is still a great deal in this that is personal, but the intensity of feeling which is so magisterially developed belongs to the composition, not the composer. For this reason, I also find this a more powerful and convincing work, despite some roughness in design: its intentions lack all traces of self-indulgence.

The Third is often described as a musical expression of pantheism, with diverse textual sources in Nietzsche, an atheist, and in a Knaben Wunderhorn poem about the angels and the penitent St. Peter. It is clearly a hymn of epic proportions to life, joy, and love. It was written during a period when the composer, aged 33-36, was under the influence of both Nietzsche and certain utopian socialist ideals. His love of ordinary people manifests itself not only in a populist melodic style (which continues to earn the affection of audiences) but also in subject matter. Among his songs composed just prior to this symphony are the pair (from 1892) “Das irdische Leben” and “Das himmlische Leben.” The latter eventually became (in modified form) the final movement of his Fourth Symphony. But it was originally intended as a seventh movement for the Third. Having completed the sixth, the composer properly realized that nothing more should be added. However, that pair of songs has been aptly described as portraying the situation of the hungry child, the first describing his grim reality and the second his escapist fantasy. Adding to that, the text of the fifth movement was originally titled “The poor child’s begging song.” This same socialist-democratic sympathy animates the opening movement of the Third, with its parades of Dionysian revelers (the minions of Pan) who could just as well be Bohemian peasants and workmen on holiday, with its intoxicated ecstatic explosions, and its dyspeptic percussive rumblings. These musical signifiers serve double duty as indicators of an awakened nature in summertime. Mahler assigns a majesty and nobility to the whole cataclysmic process as if observing it all through some eye in the sky (or might that be a cosmic ear to the ground?). Similarly, the second movement devoted to flowers alludes to the perfumed fin-de-siècle indulgences of contemporary aesthetes in an ironic way, largely through the intricacies of Mahler’s clairvoyant counterpoint and shifting instrumental colors (Klangfarbenmelodie) that keep us aware of nature’s boundless fertility and variety. In the third movement, the beasts have their say (as they will again in “Das himmlische Leben”) but are eventually instructed by a higher voice, the off-stage post horn which interrupts, admonishes, and elevates the near-cacaphony with foreshadowings of a heavenly harmony which, for us human listeners, foreshadows a return to a world of innocence that we may no longer be able to remember. (This episode never fails to remind me of the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” from Kenneth Graham’s classic The Wind in the Willows.)

The themes of innocence and awakening from quotidian life to a higher consciousness are never far from Mahler’s thought, and they carry through the rest of the symphony. The Nietzsche text, a hymnic verse from Also Sprach Zarathustra, succinctly puts forth a credo for a secular religion whose tenet asks that humanity awaken to its true condition: the world is full of woe, beneath which lies a well-spring of boundless joy. This is expressed by music that almost stands still, looking deeply inward and including the first vocal expression of the symphony, a very sustained alto line that emerges imperceptibly out of and back into the orchestral fabric of horns and strings. Immediately, the fifth movement follows: “The elaborate artifice of the previous [i.e. fourth] movement’s song of individuated inwardness is now replaced by a public celebration—a musical party to which everyone has been invited, from the local church choir to the village band.” The poor beggar child and the innocent voices of angels merge to tell the story of the anguished penitent who receives a promise of salvation. Salvation may also be one topic of the final Adagio, an extended lyric mediation on three themes: the first is derived from the slow movement of Beethoven’s last string quartet; the second closely (and probably coincidentally) resembles the American popular song “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places,” while the third echoes the Dresden “Amen” that Wagner quotes in Parsifal. Since the latter work is severely criticized in Nietzsche’s later writing, one might speculate that this was Mahler’s attempt to find salvation even for the tortured soul of that opera and its composer.

Three summers ago, I reviewed another Tanglewood Third by Michael Tilson Thomas and the TMC Orchestra: it was a marvelous romp of a reading. Hearing Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos lead the Boston Symphony through the work, a comparison of the two performances, directors, and orchestras seemed inevitable. I wrote of MTT/TMCO’s interpretation, “The separation of musical ideas by color, dynamics, register, emotion, etc continued to be articulated with greater than usual clarity throughout the performance. Although there were swooningly gorgeous moments, sensual beauty and seamless transitions were not the point: it was more about those contrasts, juxtapositions and contradictions.” In other words, the earlier performance was heterogenous—it fully embraced the diversity and indeed the decentered nature of the material without worrying very much about what was holding it all together.

As my comments in this review might indicate, the present performance was very much concerned with a unifying over-view, and managed to achieve one impressively. In other words, it strove toward a kind of homogeneity. One enabling factor was the nature of the orchestra itself: the BSO is a finely-tuned ensemble whose players know each other as individuals and as section members; it knows how to play together within and across those sections. The extreme timbral diversity of Mahler’s scoring offers a huge challenge; meeting it was one of the most impressive achievements of this performance: the most active and powerful moments remained lucidly balanced, with the brasses particularly finding the fine line between overwhelming power and cohesive ensemble with the strings and winds. Not that the playing was excessively polished or super-smooth; with the continual urging of the conductor, the playing was often energized and displayed occasional slightly rough edges, especially in the first movement, where they seemed very appropriate, even necessary. The quieter moments had their share of beauty, particularly the solos by the principal violin and the english horn; but the most impressive section was the trombones, who have a virtual concerto on their hands. Sharing in moments of quiet beauty was the alto soloist of the fourth and fifth movements, Anne Sofie von Otter. Unfortunately, her cool and appropriately introspective approach to the Nietzsche text had difficulty in being discerned over the very discrete orchestra in the barn-like acoustics of the shed; nevertheless, her color-shadings and subtle variations of vibrato were beautifully applied in phrases like “Ich schlief.” Her sound in the fifth movement solo, amidst the rambunctious tolling of angelic bells (boys’ and women’s choirs) was even more obscured.

Rafael Frubeck de Burgos leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Hilary Scott.
Rafael Frubeck de Burgos leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Hilary Scott.

Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos, almost 80 years old, has been a Tanglewood favorite for years. I am inclined to think that he is particularly a favorite of the orchestra players, both of the BSO and the TMCO. They both respond to his direction with unusually expressive playing; he manages to elicit much nuance with only a few gestures. He had a chair on the podium which he used much of the time, rising when he wanted particular attention to a climax, a turning point, or a crucial nuance. Apparently he has recovered from a winter illness, and looked thinner and a bit more frail as he walked onstage this time; but his energetic and clear gestures indicated no loss of authority, and anyone with the stamina to stay alert to all the details of this 90 minute behemoth certainly must have powerful reserves. He had definite ideas about each moment in the work and succeeded in galvanizing the players to manifest them. His reading stressed the large-scale cohesiveness of the symphony, placing much emphasis on the reconciling and unifying force of the final movement, imparting to it a sense of tragedy transcended (see my earlier review for more details about the other way of reading this movement.) This was possible because the rest of the symphony moved so purposefully toward this moment; the interpretation clarified some of the large-scale structural strategies of the music and eschewed dwelling on individual moments. The beauties of such moments and of their performance were fleeting; one grasped at them and they were gone, swept up in a compelling flow that had other things on its mind. This was not a weakness, but actually a strong positive characteristic: the emphasis was on dynamism, metamorphosis, patterns and processes of change. The first movement is notable for its alternation between grand outbursts and almost empty stretches. Frühbeck de Burgos established the large-scale rhythmic pattern, suggesting that there was a necessary relation between those opposite states, and calling attention to the gradual movement from intermittent alternating periods to more continuous flowing change, a process which takes a very long time to develop (i.e. most of the 35 minutes of this movement), but which was made clearly apparent. Listening to it was a thoroughly gripping experience.

Thinking in large units extended to the connections between the movements. The chorus was brought on-stage before the second movement, even though it did not sing until the fifth. The result was that the spaces between all subsequent movements were minimally disrupting to the flow. That meant that, despite the sudden, quasi-barbaric coda of movement three, the preceding long, mellow fading of the post horn, a kind of valedictory to all the previous music, could also point directly toward the midnight meditation of movement four. After the end of the fourth movement’s descent to inaudibility, the chorus stood up abruptly, actually with a bang, and launched into their “Bimm, bamm” refrain, shocking the audience out of its reverie. The effect was to underscore the dichotomy (musically, philosophically) between these two movements. At the end of the fifth movement’s hieratic opposition of penitence and redemption, the fading away of the final high-pitched “Bimm, bamm” opened the space for the extremely warm cello entry that begins the long final hymn to humanism. This kind of attention to large-scale architecture and drama in no way sacrificed the expressiveness of individual passages; in fact, it rendered them more powerful as part of the interplay of the natural, human and cosmic forces that pervades the entire work.

Mahler’s Third is a fitting choice for the first Saturday night concert at Tanglewood. It combines the grandiose and festive humanism of Beethoven’s Ninth with a modern, ironic sensibility (present to some degree in Beethoven as well), a great sense of humor, and a larger-than-life sonority and scope that matches the idea and architecture of Tanglewood itself. One characteristic of a large-scale summer music venue is the democratic vision of culture which was alive in America during the 1930’s when it was conceived, an era when radio stations had house orchestras and even commissioned new compositions. In traditional venues, the formal rituals of classical music can be off-putting to inexperienced audiences, but Tanglewood at its best relaxes the demands on the audience while serving up the surprise of a powerful experience that transcends the function of background music for a summer night. Not every work in the classical canon suits the character of the space and audience, but Mahler’s Third is uniquely up to the job.

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