If percussion is the artillery of the orchestra, then the Boston Symphony was armed to the teeth Friday afternoon for Jörg Widmann’s Towards Paradise (Labyrinth VI). Batteries of hanging gongs (37 by one count) joined more common instruments like the glockenspiel, drums and xylophone and exotica like the water tam-tam, rain stick, Brazilian tambourines, Chinese cymbals, flexatone, guiro, water phone and whip with multiple percussionists scurrying to cover them all. They provided the topiary in the thickets of Widmann’s labyrinth of textures and layers, perking up and redirecting the ear in a composition which constantly plays with sound and space.

Håkan Hardenberger and the Boston Symphony
© Aram Boghosian

Towards Paradise begins with the house in darkness save for the new accent lights creating an autumnal glow on the stage walls.A trumpet’s unearthly, distant plaint swells from the wings. The stage left door opens and the sound intensifies as Hakån Hardenberger gradually approaches stopping by the double basses. A trumpet in the orchestra takes up the plaint with the same timbre and accents as the soloist momentarily falls silent. The transition is so seamless there is no sense of another player replacing the soloist. Dim light, the proximity of the two instruments, and the inability to see clearly who is where and doing what from below in the orchestra seats abet this effect and transform the trumpet into a spectral presence, even when the soloist resumes and strikes up a dialogue with his fellow trumpeter. Soft sighs rise from the accordion as the dialogue gradually extends to other instruments and sections.

Hardenberger is our stand-in, a pilgrim in this selva oscura; his journey is our journey. He not only navigated the thickening labyrinth of sound, but that of the orchestra itself, taking up half a dozen distinct positions as he progressed across the stage and stopping longest at the traditional position to the conductor’s left. He resumed his journey continuing up to the stage right door, activating other sections and combinations as he went and using various mutes and positions to vary his sound and color. He then retraced his steps, with a brief stop to the conductor’s right, before exiting as he entered and faded out from afar with a glimmering, ethereal high E flat.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony
© Aram Boghosian

Widmann’s maze keeps the listener off balance, constantly surprising and tricking the ears as a labyrinth constantly surprises and tricks the eyes. You have no idea what’s coming and only a vague sense of where you’ve been as the orchestra cleaves the air with icy, jagged flashes of lightning and wild, kaleidoscopic shifts in rhythm, pitch, dynamics, timbre, and texture. Many of the episodes are brief, some are vertiginous, the orchestra blocking progress with tumultuous, dense outbursts. The only way out is to go back. Orchestral responses thin out leaving the trumpet alone once again. Have we reached Paradise? Hard to say. That final note suggests, yes, but does it really resolve the momentous turmoil preceding it?

The commitment of Hardenberger, Nelsons, and the orchestra was undeniable. They created an imposing, phantasmagoric maze but one difficult to comprehend on a first hearing. You can marvel at what Hardenberger does with his instrument, at the variety of voices and colors he is able to summon, and at his sheer stamina and virtuosity, but this is a composition so dense and eventful that a recording might be the only way to create the spatial balance necessary to experience it fully.

Mahler begins his First Symphony as Beethoven began his last – by bringing order out of chaos. The form that order takes telegraphs Mahler’s departure from his predecessor’s path. The various fragments coalesce into the melody of a song by Mahler himself; this symphony will not be a paean to joy and brotherhood, but a “song of myself”. In the wrong hands, Mahler’s solipsism can seem excessive, tedious and self indulgent. Fortunately, Andris Nelsons knows how to avoid most of this symphony’s pitfalls, accentuating the variety of tone from the pastoral lyricism of the first movement, the ruddy galumphimg of the Ländler, and the sly, sardonic parody of the funeral march/ klezmer juxtaposition. Whether the final movement bloviates or convinces depends on how the conductor treats Mahler’s false starts. Nelsons did not relent nor hold back and gave each build-up equal weight, so that the fact the symphony doesn’t end the first time came as a surprise and created a tension which persisted until the final blaze of glory with all the horns on their feet.