Dohnányi, BSO offer a polished, uneven Mahler Second
It was hard to tell exactly when Thursday night’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 by Christoph von Dohnányi and the Boston Symphony Orchestra went from extraordinary to merely very good.
One is tempted to say that the spell was broken by the enormous pause of about three minutes inserted, per the composer’s instructions in the score, between the first and second movements. (Actually, Mahler specified “at least five minutes,” but a 1909 minute and a 2013 minute are not the same thing.)
But no, the second movement, with its mysterious variations on a little Ländler tune, sounded as luminous and inspired as the first.
All that can be said for sure is that, listening to this performance in the early going, one often imagined dragging one’s Mahler-skeptic friends to hear it. The composer’s fertile imagination, volatile temperament, and endlessly inventive use of tone color were not merely on display, but came to life in a psychologically compelling way.
The performance was preceded by an unusually long wait in silence for the conductor to come onstage, as if to put a reverent frame around the music. But cellos and basses barking out the opening march theme provided a wake-up call, and when all the strings returned a few pages later with the suave second theme on a cushion of horns, one sensed an orchestra listening intently to itself, and a performance that was going places.
The 84-year-old maestro, who in last week’s performances had seemed content at times to lean back and let Brahms be Brahms, here conducted with an engagement and energy that banished all thoughts of age. His insistence on forceful, precise rhythm transformed the music from a snappy march to an evocation of inexorable fate.
There was literally never a dull moment in this long movement, which spun out countless shifts in mood and color, some fleeting and some insistent, but all captured by this very tuned-in ensemble. Strings and winds (especially John Ferrillo’s oboe) distinguished themselves for curvaceous phrasing and tonal variety, and the overall sound was less a Brahmsian stew than a Mahlerian salad of distinctive ingredients in expressive contrast to each other.
The first movement didn’t seem overly long at all—time flies when you’re having good Mahler—and it left one eager for more. But that pause had to be observed. Perhaps the composer, who didn’t suffer from a lack of ego, thought the audience would be so stunned by his music that it would need several minutes to recover.
More likely, considering Mahler’s often-expressed sensitivity to criticism for using “trivial” popular tunes in his lofty symphonies, he just wanted as much distance as possible between his tragic first movement and the dancy “intermezzo” (his word) that follows.
That’s another difference between 1909 and 2013: These high-low, classical-pop juxtapositions aren’t just tolerated better these days, they’re practically expected. In any case, this listener at least would have been satisfied if the maestro had ignored the composer’s instruction and gotten on with the music.
The pause did serve to seat a few latecomers (very few, actually) and allowed the two vocal soloists to slip discreetly into their chairs in front of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (to a smattering of applause). Dohnányi sat down too, laying down his baton and taking a breather on a tall stool.
On this night at least, Mahler needn’t have worried about the second movement sounding trivial. Right away, the strings cast a nostalgic haze over the dance theme, making it seem to recede even as it was introduced. The ensuing variations and episodes added layers of ambivalent emotions.
Through it all, as the conductor’s steady beat precluded expression by tempo tweaking, the orchestra was thrown on its resources of phrasing and tone color. It delivered handsomely with, among other things, urgent staccato triplets that seemed lifted from Beethoven’s “Eroica,” silky strings like a glimpse of heaven, and a blare of wah-wah brass.
It was in the scherzo-like third movement, based on the composer’s ironic, watery song about St. Anthony preaching to the fishes, that a certain paleness entered the performance, at least compared to the vivid first two movements.
All the pieces seemed in place—the precise execution, the smart phrasing, the fine balances of the sections—and yet something was missing in the character of the performance. In a symphony preoccupied with facing down death, this movement came across as too jokey and pleasant—dare one say, trivial.
Without that shudder of the grotesque in the scherzo, the simple affirmation of the fourth movement’s alto solo—delivered with gentle dignity and clear, full-bodied tone by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly–lost much of its effect as the quiet turning point of the entire symphony.
Recalling this performance’s arresting opening bars, the much bigger dissonance that began the fifth and final movement fell a little short in impact, and during the suspenseful bars that followed, punctuated by many silences, it was hard to keep one’s mind from wandering.
Eventually, however, one could sit back and give in to Mahler’s potent orchestral effects—a tremendous brass crescendo, violins rising to a shriek and then marching to the “resurrection” theme in the brass, a couple of hair-raising dissonant climaxes.
The chorus, for whom this work is familiar territory, entered very softly, but not the super-pianissimo (ppp) that Mahler marked in the score. Surely the Tanglewood singers are capable of this difficult effect, but the conductor seemed to have settled in this case for a good-enough double-p.
The rest of the way, the chorus’s fine diction and blend matched the orchestra’s technical standard. Soprano Camilla Tilling adapted her attractive voice well, emerging first as a highlight in the choral sound, then matching tone with Connolly in a lively duet.
Like Beethoven’s Fifth, this symphony closes in a long blaze of tonic-key affirmation in which the challenge is to sustain listener interest. One felt that Dohnányi was letting it rip, without the planning that makes graduated climaxes and a sense of forward momentum.
On the podium, the conductor looked much younger than his years, and he did not tire visibly during the performance’s 90 minutes. But one had to wonder, amid this generally polished and colorful rendering of Mahler’s symphony, whether he was as fully in control of the last three movements as he was of the first two.
The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday. bso.org; 617-266-1200.
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