Surrounded by the hum of nature, dappled by sunlight reflected off the lake, a stout refuge, complete with lightning rods, against the quirks of the alpine micro-climate and the thunderstorms it sends tumbling over the Höllengebirge range, Mahler’s little Komponierhäuschen on the banks of the Attersee at Steinbach saw the birth of the longest and most cosmic of the all-encompassing sound worlds he created, the Symphony no. 3 in D minor. The Third is saturated with the sights, sounds and sensations of a summer day by that mountain-ringed lake, all of which spoke to Mahler in specific voices. The symphony follows the dream logic of a reverie as the composer’s thoughts wander freely along the path between memory and the present. Working titles emphasized the dream aspect and a joyful embrace of the world: “ The Happy Life – A Midsummer’s Night Dream”, “My Gay Science” (referencing both Nietzsche and the gai saber of the Provençal troubadours), “The Gay Science – A Midsummer’s Noon Dream”, and finally, simply “A Midsummer Noon’s Dream”. As always in Mahler, though, nothing is present without its opposite. Light contends with dark, life with death, joy with sadness, confidence with doubt, the transcendent with the earthbound. The long first movement in particular teems with opposites as various voices vie to be heard and episodes recur and interrupt each other with some even returning in subsequent movements. Bright fanfares bray and turn sour, bold marches devolve into dirges, and clouds dim the high sun of summer and dull its festivities before the season definitively marches in in a blaze of bacchic celebration.

Susan Graham, Andris Nelsons and the BSO © Winslow Townson
Susan Graham, Andris Nelsons and the BSO
© Winslow Townson

Andris Nelsons treated Mahler’s huge orchestra like a chamber ensemble. Each of the varied episodes of the first movement were given the space to contrast each other and unfold with their proper weight and color. Mahler initially introduces themes as fragments which peter out and fall silent then expand with each return. Adopting a deliberate pace, Nelsons introduced a hint of wonder and mystery to the transitions and silences and an edge to the more festive outbursts. Dionysus may be the god of wine and ecstasy, but he can also be a dangerous god; just ask Pentheus. Mahler suggests an intermission at this point, which Nelsons didn’t take. Instead he sat in the chair set for Susan Graham while the two choruses filed in to take their places on the risers, women dressed in black and the children in white shirts and blouses and black slacks, a visual representation of the symphony’s major contrast.

The play between light and dark continued as Nelsons had the flowers dance their graceful minuet to the tune of languorous summer breezes and weather the buffeting of the darker and stormier passages. The frolicking animals of the Scherzo stopped cold as the distant posthorn cast a forlorn, plangent pall. Principal trumpet, Thomas Rolfs brought his posthorn up to the corridor outside the first balcony right for an eerily effective, mournful intercession.

Susan Graham entered, her long hair falling softly to her shoulders. In yet another contrast, her song speaks of deep, enduring joy yet Mahler sets it to the tolling of midnight with the hushed lines sung between the strokes. This is joy as consolation rather than celebration. Graham darkened her tone and colored the words floating her voice on even sustained breaths. Her mezzo was balm. The cheerful voices of angels – the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and a Children’s Choir specifically auditioned and assembled by Chorus Director, James Burton – sang of heavenly joy and ushered us from night to light and towards the empyrean of the final movement and “What Love Tells Me”.

Susan Graham, Andris Nelsons and the BSO © Winslow Townson
Susan Graham, Andris Nelsons and the BSO
© Winslow Townson

Nelsons built the Adagio from a germ of sound, expanding with deliberate, growing tension and liturgical solemnity, swelling like an extended hymn without voices and blossoming in the ecstatic release of an insistent D major peal of brass and timpani.

Concerts which speak to each other within and across seasons are the hallmark of good programming. The Third not only relates to the First performed earlier but to Nelsons and the orchestra’s ongoing Shostakovich project. The Russian learned much from the Third and even lifted the D major finale with brass and timpani for the conclusion of his Fifth. In Mahler’s hands, it is an expression of all-encompassing, transcendent love; in Shostakovich’s of the hysteria incited by a brutal, repressive regime.

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