Nelsons, Boston Symphony stand strong in uncompromising Mahler Ninth

April 16, 2016
By David Wright
Andris Nelsons conducted the BSO in music of Bach, Berg and Shostakovich Thursday night.

Andris Nelsons conducted the BSO in Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 Thursday night.

Leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night, Andris Nelsons had the air of a man fiercely concentrating on a challenging task: crafting a coherent performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a work that is virtually an ode to dissociation and disintegration.

Typically for Mahler, the score of the Ninth bristles with instructions to the conductor, but is silent as to the “why” of it all. One doesn’t doubt that Nelsons, an avowed believer in the “dictatorship of the composer,” was following the written directions faithfully.

He also grasped Mahler’s sharp break with the symphonic past: the instrumental lines that tussled with each other instead of blending, the puzzling halts in the action, the crescendos ruthlessly cut off, the expectations repeatedly raised and dashed.

In fact, this conductor, who is currently attracting attention as an exponent of Shostakovich, seemed to be hearing the future in the half-stifled passion of the Ninth’s outer slow movements and the fury of its scherzo-like Rondo-Burleske. At such moments on Thursday, Mahler’s music sounded uncannily like that of his later Russian admirer.

Corralling his usually expansive gestures into a conducting style that managed to be both specific and continuous, Nelsons didn’t try to smooth this score’s edges. Disintegration was both vertical and horizontal, as James Sommerville’s horn might rudely blot out the oboe or even the entire violin section, and a surging phrase might suddenly fall into an abyss of near-silence.

The first movement opened in that near-silence, a throb and murmur of spring earth from which the tendrils of a D major theme repeatedly arose, only to be blasted by acidic brass or honking horns. During this complex and eventful Andante, the throb of heartbeat rhythm eventually swelled to a march, with such striking features as horns held high to pronounce an Olympian phrase and later an odd, off-kilter duet for flute and one horn. Nelsons brought the movement down to the softest of landings, with only Cynthia Meyer’s piccolo lingering in the silence.

Although Mahler marked the second movement’s Ländler-style dance “somewhat clumsy and very coarse,” Nelsons opted for a more polite approach, at least at first. Later, as new themes entered and the tempo increased, blatant brass and squawking woodwinds stirred everything into a dissonant, almost Ivesian mash-up, featuring a brief, bovine trilling phrase that considerably outstayed its welcome (deliberately on Mahler’s part, one imagines).

The breathless, truncated phrases of the Rondo-Burleske, driven by the nasal, jeering sound of Thomas Martin’s E-flat clarinet, eventually coalesced into a furious fugue. Nelsons drove the performance through a series of aborted crescendos, ending at last in a raucous accelerando to a sudden, loud finish.

As a fervent theme for strings opened the final Adagio, Nelsons unleashed his big gestures and drew out a string sound that shook one’s seat. True to this work’s form, however, the big theme soon yielded to a single, rather glum bassoon, and thereafter the theme had to seek warm brass for allies to stand up to the gathering darkness.

The BSO players created no end of striking effects—a high flute note sprouting out of the same note in the violins, for example, or woodwind sound forming curly tendrils, or an unearthly bitonal dialogue between strings and soft winds.

Finally, as a graceful turn-motive echoed through the orchestra, the symphony’s long goodbye began, a deeply-touching marvel of attenuation over what seemed an endless span of time, the conductor barely moving and the strings playing pianissimo and below, until silence reigned.

The applause was long and appreciative, sustaining a full round of bows for individual players and sections, then summoning Nelsons back to the stage for more accolades. The conductor’s unremitting focus, energy, and faithfulness to Mahler’s uncompromising vision had earned him all that and more.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday.; 617-266-1200.

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