It’s been a big year for Yannick Nézet-Séguin: negotiating a new contract to lead the Philadelphia Orchestra into the next decade while assuming the position of Music-Director Designate of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and conducting his first performance for the Met. Yannick likes his seasons to go out with a bang, and in this celebratory season he chose the biggest stem-winder of all, the Mahler Third, to finish the year’s concerts in Philadelphia.
Mahler is so firmly ensconced in the repertory now that it is hard to remember a time when he was a half-forgotten name, performed mostly on a very occasional basis by European conductors of a certain age and seriously championed only by a faithful disciple, Bruno Walter. There were two principal reasons for this, apart from the scope and complexity of the music itself. Musical taste in the half century following Mahler’s death in 2011 had shifted from the tonal lushness of late Romanticism to Stravinsky’s neo-Classicism and Bartók’s aggressive Modernism. Many major composers abandoned Mahler’s preferred form, the symphony, and those who continued to write symphonies were mostly dismissed as holdovers or conservatives. No one appeared to be actually attempting to extend the form as Mahler had left it, and the most important figure who regarded him as a legatee, Arnold Schoenberg, felt the need to create a wholly new idiom. Only one composer in the generation that followed Mahler, Dimitri Shostakovich, actually composed a symphony that attempted to engage Mahler in Modernist terms, but that work, his Fourth, was suppressed during Stalin’s Great Terror, went unperformed for twenty-five years, and had no successor in Shostakovich’s oeuvre.
The other reason for Mahler’s neglect was more straightforward: the banning of all music by Jewish composers under the Nazis, including not only German orchestras but those of Mahler’s native Austria. Nor was there any rush to reinstate Mahler in the postwar Central European tradition. His historical moment, in short, seemed to have passed. The First and Fourth symphonies, as the shortest and most accessible, got an occasional hearing; the Second, far more rarely. The rest of the canon, when thought of at all, was regarded chiefly as the fossilized relic of a bygone era.
At that moment, Leonard Bernstein arrived, to rescue Mahler as Mendelssohn had resurrected Bach more than a century earlier. Like Mahler, Bernstein was a religiously troubled Jew. I suspect, too, that he saw in his predecessor the composer he himself would have wished to be; in any event, first from the bully pulpit of the New York Philharmonic and then as guest conductor of most of the world’s major orchestras, he threw himself into the self-appointed task of making Mahler the composer to be reckoned with in the second half of the twentieth century in one of the great acts of creative sublimation in the history of music. He was assisted in this not only by his formidable gifts as a conductor and educator but by the advent of the LP record and the golden age—all too short-lived—of classical recording. When Bernstein died in 1990—the last concert I ever heard him conduct was an unforgettable reading of the Third Symphony—he had succeeded perhaps even beyond his own dreams. What had once been dismissed in Mahler as longueur, excess, and turn of the century Weltschmerz, had become the calling card of the ADD-distracted digital age, the music against which any symphonic ensemble wishing to making the grade had to measure itself. True, musical fashion had changed, and with the passing of Shostakovich and Britten in the mid-1970s there were no longer any composers who claimed a broad international following. To a certain extent Mahler filled this gap. His work might be a century old, but for listeners wishing for the experience that Sibelius had provided for some in the 1920s and 1930s, of a composer whose corpus seemed not unworthy of Beethoven’s, Mahler’s sprawling symphonies were first a novelty and then a new standard. And so they have remained.
Of course, Bernstein’s advocacy might simply have produced a fad, had old Bruno Walter not been right: Mahler was indeed a genius, and, his place in the repertory now as secure as anything can be, he has belatedly done what geniuses do: he has rewritten musical history. That isn’t to say that modern composers are going to go back to writing large-scale symphonies, of which there is certainly no sign. It does mean, however, that we are obliged to understand the symphony with Mahler as not merely the half-forgotten coda to an exhausted genre but as a prodigious expansion of its still-vital potential. This enables us to see the major post-Mahlerian symphonists—Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich—not as not mere epigones but as extensions of a form with a good sixty years more of life in it. That, in turn, suggests a revaluation of twentieth-century music itself, and of our own historical moment. Romanticism, in short, did not die out between Mahler’s passing in 1911 and the première of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring two years later; it remained a major if not the dominant strain in Modernism, the great wave within which neo-classicism, serialism, and minimalism were more or less protracted eddies.
Which brings us to the Mahler Third, the longest symphony in the active repertory . Its six movements (a seventh was cut) are bookended by a vast introductory canvas marked simply Kraftig and denoted as Part I of the score as a whole, and an almost equally extended Adagio finale. In between are four shorter (but still substantial) movements in pairs, the first set purely instrumental in Tempo di minuetto and Scherzando form, and the next utilizing texts from Nietzsche and others, sung by the imposing mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and a mixed choir. Mahler’s literary eclecticism would not have endeared him to Nietzsche, who famously rejected his quondam hero Wagner when the latter composed an overtly Christian work in Parsifal (a score itself not without echo in the Mahler Third), and the modern listener should perhaps not strive overmuch to reconcile texts from Also Sprach Zarathustra and Christian hymnology. Mahler himself cautioned against making too much of the textual crutches he used to assist his muse, or the comments he made about his own music. It suffices, certainly, that the musical architecture holds, even if the structure was erected in reverse order, with the great arch of the first movement—itself an anticipation of the microcompositional technique Mahler would begin to deploy systematically several years later with his Fifth Symphony—being the last to be written.
Nézet-Séguin’s reading of the Third stressed the turbulent and disjunctive character of the opening movement, with strongly marked dynamic and tempo contrasts, indulgently framed (and exquisitely realized) solos, and emphatic percussion. This set a general tone for the performance, although there was much sweetness too in the “Minuet,” and the string choirs had ample opportunity for display. Trumpeter David Bilger and trombonist Nitzan Haroz were singled out for well-earned recognition after the performance, as were flautist Jeffrey Khaner and oboist Richard Woodhams, but all their colleagues excelled. The only subpar moments came where they usually do, in the horns, and it was not by oversight that Nézet-Séguin gave no bow to this section. Mahler asks a great deal of his horns—no fewer than eight in the Third—but flat, sour, and wavering notes aren’t acceptable in an ensemble of this stature. There was good playing there too, but the lapses marred what should have been an unblemished evening.