For decades now, Benjamin Zander has been doing battle with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, whose nickname is “Tragic.” He’s made three recordings of it, two with his own Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and one with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London. He also performs it regularly. Saturday at Jordan Hall, he and the BPO went at it again, and the result, as usual, was a rewarding standoff.
Mahler’s darkest symphony, the Sixth isn’t just tragic, it’s a black hole that tries to suck everything into its hopeless A minor. The opening grim death march competes with a soaring love theme that the composer’s widow, Alma, claimed he’d written for her. Love triumphs, but after a spooky Scherzo with dancing-skeleton xylophone and displaced timpani accents and a heartbreaking pastoral Andante (complete with cowbells) of love remembered and lost, the hero is left to fight it out with fate in the epic finale, 30 minutes that span heaven and hell.