Some of the more potent experiences at the Boston Symphony Orchestra in recent years have been when James Levine leads the symphonies of Mahler, music to which he has been deeply committed for much of his career. Under Levine's watch, the BSO appears to be building up to a major Mahler event in the composer's upcoming big anniversary season (2010-11), though nothing has been formally announced. In the meantime, these mighty pieces steam through Symphony Hall a few times a season. Last night was one. Levine led the orchestra in a gripping, expansive account of the Sixth Symphony, a work whose size and dramatic heft has a way of obliterating everything in its path.
The Sixth is also a curveball for anyone seeking direct correspondences between an artist's life and work. It was written in the peaceful summers of 1903 and 1904, periods that seem to have been filled with something close to domestic bliss. But nonetheless, an atmosphere of foreboding and tragedy gathers at the margins of this score, and pervades its brutal finale, which the composer's wife, Alma, claimed was Mahler's description of his own downfall, complete with three actual hammer blows written into the score. (Mahler, ever superstitious, later removed the third.)
Last night, Levine and the orchestra managed to project the formal design and architecture that links this work to the grand symphonic tradition while at the same time unleashing the violent expressive force in this music that threatens to explode that very tradition. The first movement grabbed the ears from the opening bars, with the fearless tread of its march and the powerful snap given to the dotted figures. The so-called "Alma theme" surged with deep feeling.
The work's beautiful slow movement appeared as a serene island within a tumultuous sea, and the strings rendered its gentle swaying lyricism with uncommon tenderness. The scherzo was generally earthy with the trio sections floating dreamily detached from their surroundings. Mahler vacillated on the order of the inner movements, and modern performers and scholars have debated the matter at length. Last night Levine placed the slow movement second, but it will appear third in today's performance. Tuesday's movement order will be determined after both options have been weighed.
The massive finale was duly harrowing, and full of colliding sonic extremes. Levine brought out the epic theater of this movement, full of blazing orchestral statements that collapse in on themselves. A few transitions were rough, but the strings smoldered and the brass sonorities at times had a raw, acid quality that bore through the orchestral fabric. Levine was barely off the podium before the audience was on its feet.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.