When tackling the monstrous task of Mahler’s Second Symphony, one might aptly describe the process by borrowing a term from the visual arts: chiaroscuro. Hefty and deeply spiritual in every musical stroke, the “Resurrection” symphony requires a domineering vision and deft balance of dramatic elements to deliver the tormented soul of its subject from oblivion to salvation. And aside from select moments of unwieldiness, conductor Andris Nelsons delivered exactly this at his Oct. 27 concert. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, along with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, led by James Burton, gripped the abrupt temporal and textural shifts with ready but spontaneous vigor. The result was a stunning ascent to radiant triumph.
The concert opened with the Boston premiere of Maija Einfelde’s “Lux Aeterna,” the second of two pieces of the season commemorating the centennial of Latvian independence. The piece is one of several Latvian compositions slated for this season.
Nelsons’ homage to the rich cultural and artistic densities of his roots rung throughout the piece: The pleated, ghostly fabric of the vocal lines tinkered with hallowed reverence, plucked like a handkerchief with punctuated peals of crotales. Turns of harmony slip-faulted into dissonance, only to spiral off again in fascinating dissonances. Intervals of silence ebb and surged as calm between successive storms. The final note of the six minute composition sustained into almost ten seconds of silence, yet instead of fading, the intriguing tension infused into the hall as though bored into wood — a telling launch for the trajectory of the rest of the program.
The ethereal translucency of Einfelde immediately threw a stark contrast to Mahler’s first movement as Nelsons raised his baton. The upper strings voices hid away while the cellos launched into their signature theme with the self assurance of a war proclamation. Already fiery, the theme was torn between brass and horns in a monopolizing tug-of-war before being reclaimed by the lower strings. Although the movement is dominated by dark and twisted overtones of the movement, occasionally a wistful violin passage punctuates through before being submerged once again in sorrow. Unlike in previous concerts, Nelsons chose not to observe the five minute pause at the end of the first movement as Mahler indicated, instead organically transitioning to the second movement with the thrums of the former still resonating in the hall.
The contrast payed off — the second movement’s cheery nonchalance provided a much needed reprieve from the mortal broil of the first. Full fleshed violins covered the melody with a sweet and dense cloud, conversationally bantering with the winds as though each were paired in ballroom dancing. A delightfully understated violin solo gave the section a subtle edge. The melody passed seamlessly to the harps and flutes, only to be infiltrated by the pained returning theme from cellos. As the minor hints colored into the violin section, they were repelled by the undulating rise and fall of timpani and horns. A ghostly pluck of strings, sharp tinges of harp, and lower string echoes remained. The major seventh tremolos from the violins signaled the return of cold, regimented march, ending on three solemn plucks.
The third movement featured a dark scherzo and the return of the opening urgency via timpani. The already ominous melodies were punched with percussive blows of bows on the bridge, demarcated like the frenzied passage of train over railroad tracks. One was struck by an urgent sense of flight, and the mood building was almost cartoonish. Caricatured characters emerged, only to be turned on their heads as they were derailed by other sections. The orchestra cumulated in a single unbridled scream, a disturbing antithesis of the conclusion of “Lux Aeterna.”
The final movement “Urlicht” opened with a series of explosions, which teemed with the coy promise of energy yet unleashed. As the exposed exchange of French horn and cello sections was dominated by violins, one could trace the passage of each melodic line by the visual feast of physical vigor, interspersed throughout by the warning of the timpani. However, a brief transition of muted drums shifted the downward spiral into its final linear ascension. Here was the jewel of the program: As the orchestra drew back with the flight of flutes announcing a higher future, the chorus emerged in full, bringing a yearning backdrop to mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink and soprano Ying Fang’s joyful lines. As the tubular bells punctuated the swells of organ, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang with dynamic exchanges and perfect enunciation, delivering the finale into its final triumphant divinity. Mahler’s ending explosion scarcely finished before being overtaken by three standing ovations of thunderous applause — beyond resurrection, the performance delivered a rapture which continued long after the ending notes faded.