Dohnányi and the Boston Symphony: A Mahler Second Impressive for Its Sheer Logic

United StatesUnited States Mahler: Symphony No.2 in C Minor, Camilla Tilling (soprano), 
Sarah Connolly (mezo-soprano), Boston Symphony Orchestra
, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, 
Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor)
, Symphony Hall, Boston, 28.9.2013 (DA)

Three years separate this Mahler 2 from the last I heard from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. 2010 was the last year of James Levine’s tenure at Symphony Hall, and 2013 is the prelude to Andris Nelsons’ first. Between these two Seconds, the BSO has had an uncertain interval, one without clear leadership, with a rotating raft of guest conductors on the rostrum, and with personnel changes on the stage below. It’s a testament to the orchestra’s continuing technical ability and enduring reputation that its management has been able to draw on a very strong, experienced bench. With the quality maintained by Bernard Haitink, Daniele Gatti, Charles Dutoit, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Christoph Eschenbach, Stéphane Denève, and a host of others, Nelsons inherits an orchestra in good shape.

This year’s quasi-chief is Christoph von Dohnányi, who conducts five subscription series, including an opening run of Brahms, a complete set of Beethoven concertos with Yefim Bronfman, and this round of Mahler. Never less than enlightening, and still somehow underrated as an interpreter, Dohnányi is among the most interesting of Mahlerians. One wouldn’t necessarily know it. In a world in which far too many Mahler cycles remain alive on disc, Dohnányi’s with the Cleveland Orchestra is mostly deleted and sadly incomplete.* This performance of the Second was ample demonstration of what might have been, and indeed what still is.

It would be easy enough to shoehorn Dohnányi into a modernist box, even if that label were remotely capacious enough for conductors as varied Pierre Boulez and Michael Gielen, to mention just two. Certainly Dohnányi’s innate ability to draw transparency from an orchestra helps to suggest that Mahler shared more with his radical Viennese contemporaries than many would imagine (not least because many would over-estimate just how radical those contemporaries really were).  And it is not as if Dohnányi yanks his Mahler all over the place, like Bernstein and so many lesser imitators. There is much ground between those two poles, and Dohnányi combines the Mahlerian brilliance of two of the BSO’s most recent Mahlerians, Gatti and Haitink. His Mahler is clear and precise, of course. But in this performance, much more impressive was a display of sheer logic.

The funeral march went about its business with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of impact. The requisite sense of violence was there from the start, and as much as it looked forward in that regard, one could immediately sense this movement composed in a direct line with its two C minor ancestors, from Beethoven’s Eroica to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and beyond. Flawless playing allowed details to emerge as if new, all linked, without feeling constrained, to a relentless structural working-out. At its giant collapses, with dissonances wrenching, one appreciated how Dohnányi’s controlled approach paid dividends at crucial moments. So too in the difficult second movement, here much more convincing than in that ponderous Levine performance three years ago. Its levity seemed rightly false (if thereby rightly Mahlerian), and if the swing and scent of the countryside suggested a different mood Dohnányi made the kinship with the funeral march quite clear, subtly emphasising a cello line here, and insistent motto there. Snapping phrases, too, looked back to the funeral march, and indeed forwards to the finale’s march of the dead.

Again structural unity emerged in the third movement’s danse macabre, this time with a more modernist edge. Clarinets whirled neurotically, going nowhere, flute trills strained at the edge of disappearance, and syncopations constantly threatened to disrupt. With the ‘Urlicht,’ a destination always in mind came firmly into view. One might not readily associate Sarah Connolly with Mahler, but she distinguished herself here, marrying text to line supremely as she so often does. Few mezzos have such innate storytelling ability, and fewer still would ensure in this song that the final lines’ ecstasy remains and ecstasy-in-waiting. Dohnányi focused on colour here, and got it, particularly from the brass.

That brass section – when unleashed, probably the greatest on this continent – dominated the final movement and its deliberately pictorial writing. That single, long crescendo, as day breaks in the light of the Lord, burned slowly before burnishing, finally streaming with light in rasping, golden sound. Dohnányi drew a grotesque parade of the passed, jaunty at the trumpet call of ‘Aufersteh’n!’, but again this was a structural process as much as anything.  By the time one got to the entrance of the choir, the conductor had done so much work to make Mahler’s destination apparent – and seemingly inevitable – that singing barely seemed necessary. (A feat mostly Dohnányi’s, rather than Mahler’s, one is tempted to say.) Despite some flatness from Camilla Tilling and some rather unidiomatic German from the chorus, they along with Connolly were effective enough. Dohnányi seemed to keep the final pages at a wary distance, seeming not to believe quite as he might in Mahler’s apparent victories in this symphonies. Fair enough, perhaps, given the composer’s continued search for a redemption that worked. Even so, this was an outstanding performance.