Mahler once said of his Third Symphony, his great paean to nature, that its Scherzo movement was “the most ludicrous and at the same time the most tragic.” He added, “only music can mystically lead us from one to the other in one breath.”
That Scherzo depicts the animals of the forest living their lives, buzzing and bustling, happily oblivious of humanity. Until suddenly the tone shifts with the entrance of a distant, mysterious sound — a solitary song steeped in sadness, history, and a knowledge of the ephemeral. The voice of the human has entered the world of nature. In a good performance, precisely here, time stands still.
And so it was on Thursday night in Symphony Hall, when Andris Nelsons led the BSO in the first Mahler Third of his tenure. The Scherzo’s offstage solo, played on posthorn by Thomas Rolfs from the corridor of the first balcony, canopied a rapt audience with an antique, almost disorienting beauty. Onstage, the violins enhalo the solo lines, but most of the orchestra falls silent. For these few measures, Mahler has lifted the proverbial fourth wall. Performers and audience listen as one.
Mahler began the Third in the summer of 1895, composing in a small lakeside cabin. Somehow not incongruously, this was also the summer Sigmund Freud dreamt of “Irma’s Injection,” paving the way toward his landmark “Interpretation of Dreams.” Wish fulfillment, Mahler surely would have concurred, comes in many shapes. “To write a symphony,” he famously remarked while working on the Third, is “to construct a world.”
It turns out Mahler did not have in mind “a world” in poetic microcosm but, in the case of the Third, a world that takes its own world-ness rather literally. Gigantism of musical forces is only the beginning. Mahler’s original movement titles, later dropped, suggest the symphony as a cosmic compilation, with submissions from up and down the great chain of being. The flowers in the meadow have stated their case. So have the animals in the forest, humanity, the angels, and finally divine love itself.
Taking so much dictation from the universe, as it were, turned out to be a liberating formula for Mahler, freeing him from the shackles of symphonic convention. “This almost ceases to be music,” he noted of the first movement. Plenty of early listeners tended to agree.
That was also because Mahler’s gospel of inclusivity extended beyond nature and into the aesthetic domain. The Third, like all the other symphonies, embraces both high and low, the lofty and the vulgar. As a Mahler interpreter, Nelsons traverses these polarities with evident ease; in fact, the conductor’s own sense of humor and the store of metaphors from which he draws when discussing music suggest a similar range of affinities.
Nelsons also has a knack for concretizing the wonderful sonic insights that make Mahler’s music seem bracing and visionary, all those wizardly details of scoring. He does so without serving up a coolly modernist Mahler. Thursday’s performance was defined in equal measure by its exactitude and its sincerity.
The enormous first movement, which depicts summer’s arrival, was a riot of sound and color. And as vernal tapestries go, this one was not overly picturesque or classical in bearing; the strings at times played with a rough woody edge; wind sonorities had bite and tang. And brasses rang out boldly, from the galvanizing horn fanfare with which the entire piece opens, to the more ruminative trombone solos, played by Toby Oft with uncommon presence and poise.
Beyond the third-movement posthorn solo, Mahler allows for only a short distance before the appearance of an actual human voice. In this case, it belonged to Susan Graham, singing Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song” in her most consolatory mezzo tones. She was joined shortly thereafter by the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the young voices of a new children’s choir assembled by the BSO for this occasion. Both sang vibrantly.
The nearly two-hour journey of the Third culminates in one of those gloriously long-spiraling adagios that now seem inseparable from Mahler’s name but which in fact he had not yet written up to this point. Tempos were organic, and the BSO strings tapped reserves of warmth. The massive final chord had an organ-like ring.
Writing to his friend Fritz Lohr, Mahler once explained the placement of this heartfelt closing music in his Third by saying “above everything hovers eternal love, like light rays converging in a lens. Do you understand now?”
The response from a packed Symphony Hall might be summarized with three words: “Yes, we do.”
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Jan. 18 (repeats Jan. 20)Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.