For one of their final performances at this summer’s Tanglewood Festival, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons scheduled a performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 in D minor, one of the most challenging orchestral works in the repertoire... for both musicians interpreting it and for listeners. The difficulties are not necessarily related to handling the immense instrumental and choral apparatus in an opus of extreme length. Composed in 1895-1896, during Mahler’s summer vacations in Steinbach, on the shores of the Attersee, the symphony is divided into two asymmetrical parts and six movements, each having initially an explanatory title that the author later gave up. It ends with a slow, hymn-like, pensive movement rather than a conventionally uplifting one. The shorter middle sections are not moments of respite between the huge first and last but, as Nelsons made very clear, ascending steps towards a clear goal.

Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO in Mahler 3 © Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO in Mahler 3
© Hilary Scott

The first movement, uncharacteristically composed last, contains references to the later ones that have to be underlined. In a worthy interpretation, this huge movement must maintain, as the only component of the first part, its relative independence and also satisfy its role in the architectural structure. The music is full of contrasts, of Yin-Yang elements that must be both brought forward and resolved into a higher order synthesis. Keeping, as always, a keen eye on details of timbre and dynamics, Nelsons almost fully succeeded in performing a difficult balancing act. The music in the huge initial section constantly oscillated between gay and tragic, suave and exuberant, aggressive marches and deeply felt suggestions of funeral processions. In a performance that was far from being “cool” and detached, edges were sharp, the Latvian conductor making no attempt to smooth them out. Neither was the Tempo di Minuetto walk among blooming flowers overly prettified. In the third movement, the transformation of the concrete trumpet sound into the mysterious, atemporal posthorn reverberations was almost magical. So were occasional “conversations” between very precise beats and seemingly indefinite, floating ones.

Mahler’s Third is, as much as anything else, a showcase for individual contributions within the orchestral ensemble. Interventions by First Associate Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova, Principal Oboe John Ferrillo or Principal Flute Elizabeth Rowe were outstanding but conform with the traditions of Romantic scores. Mahler introduced marvelous thematic material for brass instruments in this work and multiple solos by Toby Oft (trombone) and Thomas Rolfs (posthorn) were those that truly captivated the listeners’ attention. They were not necessarily remarkable for their accuracy but for their amazing, almost human voice-like legatos.

Susan Graham joins Andris Nelsons and the BSO © Chris Lee
Susan Graham joins Andris Nelsons and the BSO
© Chris Lee

Listening to Susan Graham, one of the foremost interpreters of Berlioz’s vocal music, accompanied by an orchestra with a long and outstanding tradition in performing French music, I realized again how deep a connection exists between Mahler’s Wunderhorn symphonies and Berlioz’s scores. It goes way beyond such technicalities as employing an E-flat clarinet to underline the grotesque. The formidable sense of color, the richness of textures, the rapid shifts of mood and the penchant for grand gestures, the love for military marches, all point to Mahler’s affinity for the Frenchman’s work. Listening to Graham’s superb, flexible and deep mezzo and recalling her interpretations in Les Nuits d’été or La Damnation de Faust, one could discern a Berlioz influence not only in Mahler’s orchestral timbre but also in the vocal lines that seemed, on this occasion, less anchored in the lieder tradition.

Playing Mahler’s Third Symphony was also meant to be an homage to Leonard Bernstein, one of the great interpreters of Mahler’s music, born 100 years ago this week. Recalling, in a recent interview published in The New York Times,  the conductor, Jennie Shames, a BSO violinist since 1979, commented on his great ability to “pace a piece so that it creates a sense of inevitability in how it unfolds”. Nelsons succeeded in conveying the same in the Koussevitzky Shed on Friday night. A wonderful homage to Bernstein indeed.