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Von Dohnanyi And BSO Make Magnificent Mahlerian Music Together

Christoph von Dohnanyi leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's Second Symphony.  (Stu Rosner)

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BOSTON — Performances of Mahler symphonies were among the highlights of the James Levine era at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Always first-rate affairs they showed off the tone, polish and precision that Levine brought to the BSO, re-establishing them as one of the world’s great orchestras.

But as long as Christoph von Dohnanyi keeps coming back to conduct Mahler there will still be that sense of event at Symphony Hall or at Tanglewood, where he conducted a thrilling Mahler’s First last summer with the student orchestra.

This week he’s back for Seconds (through Tuesday) and, man, are they delicious. To me, Mahler’s Second ranks as one of the two great musical works the species has produced, along with Beethoven’s Ninth. Von Dohnanyi’s performance only strengthened that notion.

The performance doesn’t have the sense of majesty that Levine brought to Mahler, but in its place there was a heightened drama to the orchestral dynamics. If every musical hair wasn’t in place, as with Levine, there wasn’t the neurotic muss of Leonard Bernstein’s recordings (which I love dearly).

There’s more than one way to skin a late-romantic cat, though, and there’s room in one’s heart for any number of ways to approach Mahler. The 84-year-old former Cleveland Orchestra maestro seems more rooted in the 19th century, presenting him as romantic heir to Brahms (another composer von Dohnanyi excels at) rather than the as the visionary prophet of 20th century music.

Von Dohnanyi brings a flow to this Mahler, with one episode of the 90-minute symphony leading into another with such grace, inevitability and drama that the five-minute break between the event-filled first and second movements seemed a distraction.

What happens next, you wanted to ask, like an impatient kid listening to a parent read a favorite book, even though he knows. What does happen is, as Mahler said, “Very easygoing. Not to be hurried at any point.”

Sarah Connolly, Camila Tilling and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. (Stu Rosner)

Sarah Connolly, Camila Tilling and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. (Stu Rosner)

A copy editor I once knew was working on a story about evolution and, stymied in writing a caption for the accompanying photo, penned, “Antelope grazing and evolving on the plain.” I almost started chuckling Thursday night as it felt like that’s what the audience was doing at Symphony Hall in the second movement.

This was all in preparation for the spectacular finale with the BSO at the top of its game along with mezzo Sarah Connolly, soprano Camilla Tilling (both parts beautifully sung) and John Oliver’s superlative Tanglewood Festival Chorus, rising from other-worldly hush to resoundingly throwing open the gates of heaven.

The title of the symphony, not Mahler’s, is “The Resurrection” and the accepted “story” of the symphony is about the death and promise of resurrection for the hero of Symphony No. 1.

I don’t know how much evolving went on Thursday night, much less resurrecting. But regeneration? That’s really what one gets from Mahler. And that’s what one always gets from von Dohnanyi’s Mahler. After his triumphs at Tanglewood and Boston with Symphonies One and Two, we’re ready for Three through Nine (and all the rest) if you are, Christoph.

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