Boston Symphony Orchestra/Levine – Mahler 6

Mahler
Symphony No.6

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine


Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 11 October, 2008
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

James Levine. Photograph: Michael DwyerThe correct order of the middle movements of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony has been the subject of much argument and debate. The original manuscript and the first printing of the score use the order Scherzo-Andante, but in all three performances the composer conducted himself he used the order Andante-Scherzo, as did Oskar Fried in Berlin in a 1906, with Mahler present at both the rehearsals and the performance. That order was the usual practice until 1963, when the score of the critical edition of the International Mahler Society was published restoring the original order. Since then most conductors have followed the Scherzo-Andante.

Continuing a multi-year survey of the works of Mahler, this past week Levine led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in two performances of the Sixth Symphony with the inner movements in both possible orders: Andante-Scherzo on October 10 and Scherzo-Andante at this performance one day later. A further performance is scheduled for October 14, when the movements will be played in whichever order Levine and the BSO prefer after weighing up both options!

The Sixth is one of the Mahler symphonies that Levine has most frequently conducted, and his great affinity for the piece was obvious throughout this performance. Levine delivered a gripping, spacious account of what is certainly the most enigmatic, and arguably the most heartfelt, of Mahler’s symphonic works. His control of speeds was always masterful. Tempos were never rushed, and tension never failed as the varying moods of the work were sharply contrasted. The virtuosity and superb ensemble playing of the BSO musicians were impressively demonstrated throughout all four movements of this challenging work.

From the ominous opening bars of the thrilling first movement the performance pulled the audience in, as Levine combined incisive rhythmic bite with a marvelous textural clarity in the unrelenting A minor march. The Alma theme was phased in and delivered with great sensitivity. The perfectly sprung Scherzo brought out all the character and irony in Mahler’s grotesques. The Andante ushered in hushed, wistfully tender playing without a whisper of sentimentality. The powerful and dramatic finale was superlatively shaped and unerringly paced. Levine opted for only two hammer blows, but no third was needed in this sharply focused, altogether compelling performance.

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