United States Mahler: Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Jaap van Zweden (conductor). Symphony Center, Chicago, 22.4.2022. (JLZ)
Mahler – Symphony No.6 in A minor
In one of most impressive concerts of the season, Jaap van Zweden led a stunning interpretation of Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. The performance was riveting from start to finish, with van Zweden’s vision of the work present throughout as he gave each movement its character and place in the overall structure of Mahler’s score. In recent years, this work has suffered from certain details being fetishized, like the cowbells, the hammer (along with the number of hammer strokes) and movement order (van Zweden followed the first edition with the Scherzo before the slow movement), instead of dealing with the powerful musical conception as those and other elements take shape. The conductor’s focus on the music made the difference, and he showed his mastery of both the score and the Chicago Symphony.
The tone was set from the start with an incisive approach to the opening figure in the low strings. It was both sonorous and percussive and set up the timbre for entrances that would follow in the exposition. Aspects of the march-like quality of the music did not dominate but added to the performance, as van Zweden brought out details. Too often with this symphony certain elements become detached rather than blended into the overall structure, and that was not the case here. The music was shaped by maintaining a drive and direction that brought out the best in individual performers, but also allowed them to work together in ensemble passages. A case in point is an emblematic trumpet figure that moves from major to minor just before the exposition moves to a lyric motif; here the modal shift was not an isolated event but led seamlessly into the next section. The lyric passages were resonantly full and rich, as van Zweden and his orchestra delivered a breathtaking execution of the first movement.
The Scherzo followed with the stylistic touches it needs to be convincing. Tempos fit the music without adjusting the pace to overstate some of the musical irony that is already present in the score. The woodwinds were particularly effective, particularly in the deft touches in the second section of the movement. The large orchestral forces were present but not overstated, with the percussion section working as a unit as it should in this work. Details like the xylophone fit beautifully into the textures of the Scherzo. Likewise, the grace notes in the horns added the piquancy that Mahler notated without lapsing into caricature. Van Zweden gave the movement a shape that fitted well into the work’s overall structure.
In the following Andante, lyricism was paramount, with echoes of lines found in Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder fitting easily into the movement. The tempo was low and the intensity of the first two movements relaxed, as the lines moved easily between instruments, and the sometimes-spare scoring of several passages connoted the best aspects of chamber music. The longer lines and larger phrase structures were audible as the ambient noises that sometimes occur in slow movements were absent. The lyricism stood out, in contrast to the pointed wit of the Scherzo. Details emerged with appropriate balance, and the sequences in the strings with ascending pitch levels were underscored with the cowbells to set up the concluding section.
In the Finale, the march-like rhythms reprised from the opening movement stood in contrast to the organ-like textures that van Zweden elicited for the chorale. That set up the music that followed, as van Zweden gave the ideas shape with his command of articulations, volumes and timbres. He led the Chicago Symphony to the final passages with assurance and reinforced the transcendence that makes the tragic mood associated with Mahler’s Sixth lead to its nihilistic conclusion.
It was a revelation to hear such a powerful performance of this Mahler symphony. Van Zweden set the bar high with his approach and his vision ensured that the details Mahler used in his score resulted in an interpretation that was electric in its execution.