"The Universe Symphony" is an unfinished work by Charles Ives, but the title by right should belong to Mahler's Third. The latter is a symphony of epic proportions, even by Mahlerian standards, and not only in terms of the forces demanded but in the scope of the material itself. Its six movements form a kind of orchestral cosmology, a breathless tour of a world coming into life, expanding and ascending, from the buzzing, primitive nature depicted in the massive opening movement, to the exalted spirituality of the majestic finale.
James Levine led the BSO in a rousing performance of the work Thursday night, conveying most of the grandeur of its profile but also reveling in its tiny nooks and crannies. It was playing of immense clarity and precision, with tempos and dynamics shaded in minute degrees and pacing carefully calibrated. This is a work that contains Whitmanesque multitudes -- the high and the low, the earthy and the ethereal -- and Levine seemed to want you to hear every last note.
The titles Mahler gave to the various movements as they were taking shape suggest a kind of supernatural listening tour ("What the flowers in the meadow tell me," "What the animals in the forest tell me," "What humanity tells me," and so on) but Mahler actually wrote the work from a tiny composer's hut nestled in the Austrian Alps. As he once famously suggested, the rugged beauty of his surroundings made its way almost palpably into the score.
The orchestra rose to the occasion Thursday night, with the brass shining brightly from the opening fanfare, which the horns played with lapidary force. The principal trombonist, Ronald Barron, also contributed handsomely to the first movement. The second and third movements had a chamber music-like delicacy, with Thomas Rolfs playing the posthorn solo with a clear and warm tone. Mahler calls for this solo to be played from offstage, giving the impression of a kind of noble song drifting in from a place unseen.
As the mezzo-soprano soloist, Stephanie Blythe brought generous quantities of dark, liquid tone to the fourth movement, based on a text by Nietzsche. In the fifth, the orchestra was joined by the American Boychoir and the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, both in fine form. Levine took the beautifully spiraling final movement at a slower tempo than I have ever heard it played. There was a striking transparency to the interweaving lines, but whatever the slow tempo may have added in clarity, it seemed to sacrifice in dynamism, and the sweeping, smoldering quality of the music's lyricism at times proved elusive. Nevertheless, the cumulative force of this performance was substantial. After the work's blazing conclusion, the orchestra was given a swift and well-deserved ovation.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.