Daniele Gatti’s Mahler’s Third:Understanding the Importance of Suffering

United StatesUnited States Mahler: Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Boston Symphony Orchestra Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver (director),  PALS Children’s Chorus, Andy Icochea (director), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Daniele Gatti (conductor), Symphony Hall, Boston, 30.3.2013 (DA)

Mahler: Symphony No.3 in D Minor

If any of Mahler’s symphonies fulfills the composer’s dictum that writing a symphony must mean “creating a world with all the technical means available,” the Third is surely it. Beyond its pantheistic naturalism and its sheer length, it seems obsessed with overcoming and anticipating legacies and departures of music history. The opening horn call is lifted from the finale of Brahms’s First, held in admiration and mockery for half an hour. Allusions drift in and out all over the place, while the slow movement takes its cues from Beethoven’s last string quartet. In its savagery the Third looks forward to Mahler’s Sixth, in its warmth to the Fourth, and in its triumphant love to the Ninth.

Daniele Gatti has become experienced enough a Mahlerian to integrate all of that and more, but his Mahler has always primarily looked forwards, with relentless nods to Schoenberg, Berg, and even Webern. Individual instruments play with seeming freedom but under his total control, while every timbre he finds from whatever orchestra is minutely calibrated from the podium. Not everything is fiercely ironic, though much is, for Gatti also knows the importance of playing Mahler’s gloriously swung dances and rustic lieder straight. As with his Parsifal, Gatti understands the importance of suffering – however personal – to Mahler’s music. His Mahler is impetuous, incendiary, and constantly flexible, always focused on the biggest of pictures. I have never heard this symphony conducted with its movements so insistently interconnected as here.

Unsurprisingly, it was the first movement that benefitted most from Gatti’s approach, not least because he drew playing from the Boston Symphony Orchestra of a quality more befitting its lofty heritage than its beleaguered current state. There was an unsparing clarity of detailing and even logic, a focus on the tiniest of gestures from Gatti that was rewarded by telling orchestral contributions. (Elita Kang, the BSO’s fourth-string concertmaster, was outstanding throughout this performance, finding a sweet spot between solo pizazz and collegiate restraint that few first violins achieve.) Gatti maintained a massive drive throughout, even when taking his foot off the pedal, keeping harmonic tension and its probable resolutions firmly in view between vast buildups of sound. At the recapitulation – for this, like the opening of the Sixth, is one of Mahler’s few genuinely sonata-form movements – he found the perfect mix of celebratory arrival and foreboding. A whipped up frenzy at times, Gatti strongly characterised this movement’s Pan-like procession of awakenings, conjuring life and joy even if the focus remained on Mahler’s darker side.

The second movement likewise never forgot the sinister. There was a keen sense of the grove or meadow here, but the spirits of the forest seemed close at hand too, the orchestra’s delicate, idiomatic Schwung balanced by gnarly, magical passages. There was similarly more than a hint of Weber and even Mendelssohn to a fragrant, bouncy third movement, which ideally balanced solo individuality with the demands of polyphony and structure. Transitions were especially fine, particularly into Thomas Rolfs’ posthorn solo. There was, however, some surprisingly scrappy playing at times, as indeed there was in all the movements of this performance bar the first.

Anne Sofie von Otter’s fraying voice matched the fourth movement’s Nietzschean song perfectly, and she melded text and musical line with typical nuance, but here Gatti seemed slightly lost. Already slow, the tempo dragged further, leaving phrasing disconnected and a few too many entries unconvincing. What remained, however, was an atmosphere of discovery. That turned into admirable warmth for the choral fifth movement, as the ladies of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the PALS Children’s Chorus sang with clarity and their characteristic gusto.

The glorious finale maintained Gatti’s modernist focus, and occasionally it might have benefitted from being allowed to flow more. This was not one great unfolding: triumph was to be won still in a dialectic of unsettled dissonance with the plainest and most heavenly of Mahlerian material. That said, Gatti conducted in gorgeous long lines, managing every transition and entry into the overall picture. What kept it together was a Wagnerian sense of tempo relationships, the lyrical, triumphant material with its little turn slowest, and everything else related around and to it. That slowness – never too much, contrary to Jeremy Eichler’s rather unfair view of a performance interrupted by a chorister collapsing – imparted an ineffable grandeur to the symphony’s conclusion, a final nobility to its thumping D major.

David Allen