LENOX — Given its pride of place every year, Beethoven’s Ninth is no doubt the single work most closely associated with Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home at Tanglewood. But recently the symphonies of Mahler have become a local tradition nearly as reliable, with one or two representatives turning up on BSO programs almost every summer.
It’s easy to see why. The music’s epic scale works well in the vast dimensions of the Koussevitzky Music Shed, and more broadly speaking, these pieces seem at home in a natural setting not unlike the landscapes Mahler craved for his own summer composing retreats. The affinity remains in the music. Surely it’s no coincidence that Mahler is the only composer to have a mountain in Colorado named after him.
As late-Romantic musical mountains go, Mahler’s Second Symphony is among the most formidable, requiring an enormous orchestra and chorus as well as two vocal soloists to realize a score that contains, as the composer once said, “nothing except the complete substance of my whole life.” This colossal masterwork, always one of the composer’s most popular, once again hit its mark at the Shed on Saturday night, as the Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck led the BSO in a forcefully articulated performance.
Honeck, who directs the Pittsburgh Symphony and performed for many years as a string player in the Vienna Philharmonic, seems to favor extremes of character and volume in Mahler, but on Saturday he nonetheless retained a grip on the larger structural architecture so important in this music. The passage leading up to the first movement’s recapitulation, for instance, built with power and a kind of meteorological inevitability.
Some of the clarity that Honeck drew from the BSO strings in that movement was no doubt aided by his antiphonal placement of the two violin sections. He then honored Mahler’s request for a silent pause before continuing on to the second movement, to which Honeck brought flexible phrasing of an older interpretive vintage. Some of the darker currents of the third movement remained under-realized, but Mahler’s tenderly sublime “Urlicht” did not disappoint, thanks to some beautifully recessed brass playing and the shaded, consolatory depths of tone in mezzo Sarah Connolly’s delivery of the “Wunderhorn” text. Mahler’s sprawling finale benefited from Camilla Tilling silvery soprano, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang with warmth and clarity of diction across an enormous dynamic range. The final pages thundered.
Honeck was on the podium Saturday as a substitute for Christoph von Dohnanyi, who withdrew because of an illness in the family. On Friday night, he had picked up a second Dohnanyi program, leading the BSO in brisk and vigorous accounts of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony and Beethoven’s Overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus.” The night’s most memorable performance, however, came from the British pianist Paul Lewis, who offered an understatedly poetic account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12.
The outward restraint of Lewis’s playing was belied by its soft-spoken and lyrical intelligence. Indeed, Friday’s performance built toward the precise illusion of music being less performed than revealed, or allowed to speak lucidly on its own terms.
Sunday afternoon’s concert was to have been conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who passed away in June. The concert was instead dedicated to his memory, and led by the Canadian conductor Jacques Lacombe in his BSO debut.
The two halves of a concert program ideally have something to say to one another, but Sunday’s instead made for one of the summer’s oddest pairings: Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and the Triumphal Scene from Verdi’s “Aida.” Rehearsal time seemed to have tilted toward the Verdi, and on the first half, Lacombe’s musical rapport was limited with piano soloist Gabriela Montero, whose heated pianism still electrified this crowd even if it has shown a bolder profile on other occasions.
Lacombe was more effective in the “Aida” scene, and in additional Verdi selections (the Overture to “Nabucco” and the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves). Strong singing came once more from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and from the BSO’s assembled vocal soloists (Marjorie Owens, Elizabeth Bishop, Issachah Savage, Stephen Powell, Morris Robinson, and Julien Robbins). At the concert’s end, the crowd remained standing to honor this year’s class of four BSO retirees — violist Edward Gazouleas, cellist Jonathan Miller, and librarians Marshall Burlingame and William Shisler — with over a century of service to the orchestra among them.