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.
It’s a controversial symphony: During rehearsals for the 1906 premiere, Mahler reversed the original order of his inner movements, placing the Andante before the Scherzo and eliminating the third hammer blow in the finale. Zander, as has been his practice for some time, performed the Scherzo before the Andante and restored the third hammer blow. Such decisions are less crucial than what kind of incisiveness and clarity a conductor brings to this massive score, and how he handles pulse points: the E-flat “paradise” section of the Allegro first movement, the glimpses of celestial E major in the Andante, the arthritic way the “old-fashioned” section of the Scherzo wobbles from 4/8 to 3/8 to 3/4, and the way, in the finale, the music becomes an A-major juggernaut before it’s reined in.
Zander’s reading was tightly constructed and tightly focused, with little variety in tempo or phrasing, and it really could have used some breathing room. The orchestra, 111 strong, seemed oversize for Jordan Hall; it was too loud, too congested, too undifferentiated. The violins, massed on Zander’s left rather than divided, screamed throughout and were rarely sweet. The trombones and the tuba, on the other hand, frequently needed more heft. The most relaxed section was the Andante, which offered a succession of lovely solo moments from Neil Deland’s French horn, Jennifer Slowik’s English horn, Peggy Pearson’s oboe, concertmaster Joanna Kurkowicz’s violin, and, at the end, Lisa Hennessy’s flute. The offstage cowbells were nicely judged; the hammer blows, always problematic, sounded like thunderclaps.
Tight construction in this symphony, and especially in the sprawling finale, is no small achievement. Everything was in place in this performance; it all made sense. What I missed was Zander’s unique sensibility.