Gustav Mahler once counselled Otto Klemperer: “If after my death something doesn’t sound right, then change it. You have not only the right but the duty to do so.” It might be time for conductors to exercise that right and eliminate the long pause Mahler requested between the first and second movement of his Second Symphony.

Bernarda Fink, Andris Nelsons, Ying Fang and the Boston Symphony © Winslow Townson
Bernarda Fink, Andris Nelsons, Ying Fang and the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

Mahler completed what became the first movement five years before he turned to composing any symphony. He envisioned it as a tone poem, Totenfeier, a stand-alone piece but linked to the narrative of the First Symphony as its hero’s funeral rites. Mahler didn’t hesitate to program it alone, even after completing and performing the Second. It is intensely dramatic and tumultuous and, in its sonata form, stylistically distinct from the four movements which follow, so Mahler’s desire for a pause “of at least five minutes” to allow its effects to dissipate is understandable given the graceful Schubertian dance which follows. The immediate juxtaposition of two such movements might have run the risk of seeming ludicrous, even insane, to audiences at the turn of the last century. Jarring contrasts and irony, however, have long ceased to be masked interlopers in the arts. Contemporary audiences recognize and appreciate them. Taking Mahler’s extended break is anachronistic and counterproductive, particularly when the conductor decides to address the audience, irretrievably breaking the mood.

Friday afternoon, Andris Nelsons first gave a heartfelt welcome to the audience then, with some humor, explained the pause, and finally brought on the soloists, taking nearly the full five minutes. All the accumulated, tension, power, and ferocity of the first movement disintegrated and the following two dance movements, though performed with Nelsons’ usual attention to detail, color, voicing and inflection, floated free, untethered from what came before. Only the indomitable faith expressed by the long, smooth phrases of Bernarda Fink’s buttery mezzo in Urlicht picked up the dropped stitch. Her yearning to become one again with the primal light of creation – God – eased us back into Mahler’s world of earthly pain and suffering with the promise of redemption and eternal life.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony © Winslow Townson
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

The fifth and final movement erupted with a roar and built deliberately and inexorably. Control of tension and dynamics gave striking voice to each episode, including some which usually pass unnoticed, such as the two crescendos introducing the march, with the snare drum taut and barely audible at the outset then building with remarkable power and force as other instruments joined in. The chorus entered as if beckoning from another world with the angelic voice of Ying Fang breaking free then intertwining with Fink’s. Nelsons created an effulgence of sound for the finale, the music rising from the floor and arcing above, enveloping and lifting the entire hall to the heavens as the orchestra pealed like a colossal carillon. The performance as a whole may not have been redeemed by this staggering irruption of divine light, but Mahler’s hero surely was. The entire symphony clocked in at one hour and 33 minutes, within the norm for contemporary performances but nearly fifteen minutes longer than performances by Mahler protégés, Bruno Walter and Klemperer.

Maija Einfelde’s Lux aeterna for mixed chorus would have been the perfect curtain raiser for a program in which God as the light of creation and redemption is a major theme had it not been so earthbound. One of two pieces Nelsons is programming to celebrate the centennial of the formation of the Republic of Latvia, Lux aeterna is marked by the contrapuntal layering and repetition of a short text from the Requiem Mass in which the celebrant beseeches a merciful God to grant eternal rest to the departed and “let perpetual light shine upon them”. With undulating melodies and varying textures, Einfelde creates a form of plainchant which sounds both contemporary and traditional.

Since the orchestra was already seated onstage for the Mahler, Choral Director James Burton led a performance which included the optional percussion, in this case crotales, sounding like altar bells when they were struck. Unfortunately, his reading was too foursquare and the voices too defined for the chorus’ plea to take flight. It would have benefited greatly from some of the luminous blend and otherworldliness lavished on the Mahler.

***11