Back in March of 2011, a 32-year-old Latvian conductor many local music lovers had never heard of met the Boston Symphony Orchestra over the score of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. James Levine had withdrawn from a scheduled performance in Carnegie Hall, and Andris Nelsons happened to be in New York conducting at the Metropolitan Opera.
That fateful first Carnegie performance lingers in memory most of all for the sense of potential energy one glimpsed collecting in real time. Finally on Thursday night, five years later, Nelsons and the BSO brought Mahler’s Ninth to Symphony Hall for the first time, delivering a grounded, glowing performance. It seemed a kind of core statement of reaffirmation in this partnership, and in what it has meant for both parties.
On the podium these days, Nelsons is doing more with less. His gestural language is still unconventional but it is becoming more focused. Part of this comes from the comfort and familiarity an orchestra and conductor build up over time; not as much needs to be said. But Nelsons also appears increasingly more sure of what he is looking for. And the BSO continues to give him its very best.
Unlike five years ago, Thursday’s performance had nothing to prove except the clarity of its own realization. In considering this score, the Bernsteinian tropes of death and farewell can easily be overstated, but at the same time, there is no mistaking the penetrating vision of this music, written by a composer aware of his mortality, and humbled both by his majestic surroundings in the Dolomites and by the blows of fate he had experienced in his life up to that point.
One might recall the implacable phalanx of horns that bestride the opening of the Third Symphony. We hear the horn in the Ninth’s opening bars, too, but it is a lone horn, one that has left behind the posturing of fanfare. It merely pulses obliquely, along with the cellos, releasing two uneven notes.
From there, however, as the composer’s own saying goes, Mahler unfurls a world. Nelsons built up this movement’s structures patiently and with vivid layers, each in an organic relationship. There was a chilling hollowness to the shivers Mahler assigns the strings, and an impressive solidity to the towers of brass tone erected at the back of the stage. Overall, a sense of through-line emerged intact along with all the turbulence. When Malcolm Lowe’s solo violin entered at the movement’s close, it carried the consolatory air of the Second Symphony’s “Urlicht.”
The inner movements had wit and character, with the Rondo-Burleske as pointedly driving, though a greater contrast might have been achieved in that movement’s unearthly middle section. The Adagio finale had an enveloping richness of string tone, a flooding warmth nonetheless deployed with exemplary control. Nelsons bent forward and leaned deeply into the sound.
Anyone present needed no reminder that the very end of the Ninth is a moment unique in the entire symphonic literature. The string lines grow lean to the point of near disappearance. We sit riveted as the core opposition that governs all of music — between sound and silence — seems to dissolve before our ears. Mahler shows us each in the other’s image. The music’s insight feels philosophical because it models a perspective in which such a reconciliation is possible. Proust once described wisdom as something that only arrives after a long period of wandering. It is, he wrote, “the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.” By that definition, simply put, here is Mahler’s wisdom.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, April 14 (repeats April 15, 16, and 19)