CONCERT REVIEW Turn of the century glory

BSO performs Mahler’s Second Symphony

Boston Symphony Orchestra

James Levine, conductor

Symphony Hall

October 7, 2010

Mahler’s second symphony, the “Resurrection,” holds its place among a handful of symphonic works that will necessarily end in a standing ovation. This is no mystery: Mahler’s symphony is the logical extension of Beethoven’s gargantuan Ninth, theOde to Joy,” in scope, Mahler’s second symphony more than doubles the number of performers in Beethoven’s work in both orchestra and choir; Mahler’s work extends the choral sections across two independent movements and the use of orchestral recitative far beyond Beethoven’s work. In content, while Beethoven text is an exhortation to brotherhood and peace, Mahler’s text is somehow more personal, more aligned with modern aesthetics — a call for personal growth and achievement, a prayer for personal actualization, a spiritual resurrection.

Thursday evening’s performance of the work with James Levine leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was no exception. Crowds of audience members roared for no less than three rounds of applause for maestro, soloists, orchestra and choir. This was well-deserved: Levine’s interpretation was one that Mahler would have loved to hear. Levine’s adherence to the Mahler’s tempo markings verged on the fanatical, a careful reading of the work that, in recent years, has succumbed to the more dramatic readings of contemporary aesthetics.

As a general rule, Levine’s tempi were slower than modern performances have had patience for — today, we usually hear the entire symphony in roughly ninety minutes. Thursday evening’s performance took nearly a full fifteen minutes longer.

It’s hard to disagree with this decision. Levine’s reading influenced drama by approaching the work intellectually: rather than sturm und drang, Mahler’s first movement was a calculated meditation between hope and despair. A slower tempo favored greater attention to Mahler’s indication of dynamics and articulation, allowing the orchestra to articulate differences in dynamics, accentuating the tension that motivates the central thesis of the work. The more stately tempo of the second movement was appropriate for the Austrian Ländler, and despite the more stoic portions of the movement, it was impossible to not to hear the humor in the movement. The third movement, a gushing orchestration of a song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a narration of Saint Anthony preaching to the fishes, was somewhat less successful. Vivid colors emanated from the stirring Hasidic melodies, however, complex runs in the string sections became muddled.

The final movements of the second symphony are fundamentally difficult to write about objectively, precisely because there’s no performance of the second symphony that didn’t end in a standing ovation. Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill’s tone during the fourth movement, the Urlicht, was provided a solid, yet sensitive to the intellectual development of the piece; it doesn’t sound like high praise, but it is: the epic nature of the final movements often motivates over-singing or over-dramatization. None of this was present in Cargill’s rounded, obedient tone that paid obeisance first and foremost to the development of the piece This laid a solid groundwork for the fifth and final movement of the work; soprano Layla Claire’s rich tone was a perfect accompaniment to Karen Cargill’s mezzo, and anyone dubious of Levine’s tempo decisions saw the method behind the madness — orchestral recitative was bold and demarcated and choral lines followed suit; all of this accumulated in the massive catharsis promised by Mahler’s “Colossus.”

As viscerally satisfying as the work was, there’s also a debate: yes, it’s impossible not to stand and applaud at the end of the work, and although Levine’s performance remained faithful to Mahler himself, it’s important to wonder exactly how much Mahler knew about performing his own work. While it’s tempting to bask in the afterglow of the second symphony, it was hard not to find something lacking in the performance; there’s much there, and it’s hard to interpret all of it. Harder still if listening to it in Mahler’s own distended rhetoric. Yes, as usual, the “Resurrection” was more than impressive. But it’s more important to question how much more the work could have meant if it were performed with the modern aesthetic in mind, how much more an interpretation of the work would have meant to a modern audience, rather than attempting to recreate fin de siècle Vienna, and the that seems all so foreign nearly a century later.

The BSO continues its series on Mahler’s symphonies this coming weekend October 14–16, with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and MIT Professor John Harbison’s Third Symphony.