The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2017 Tanglewood Music Festival, very successful by many reports, has just concluded, with the new season in Boston to begin very soon. I offer here the perspective of a look back at the preceding season in Boston, commenting mostly on BSO, but also a few other events. I was able to attend only one Tanglewood concert this summer: the impressive concert performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, conducted by BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons, with a large, excellent cast. A good sign for the future.
Mahler’s Third Symphony is a sprawling, evening-long monster of a piece. Nothing else can or should be programmed with it; once it is over, there is nothing more to be said. It is also the composer’s break-out work, despite the obvious power and accomplishment exhibited by his previous symphonies. In the First and Second Symphonies, Mahler focuses on himself: on his rebellions against conventions and stultifications of society in the First, and against the notion of mortality and the limitations of the human condition in the Second. All of this is expressed as the musical response of a deeply sensitive and conflicted individual. The break-out achieved by the Third is its transcendence of the individual; Mahler succeeds in identifying his compositional voice or musical persona with the entire cosmos, from the life forms of nature to the mysteries of humanity and of the divine to the transcendent force of love. Obviously, there is still a great deal in this that is personal, but the intensity of feeling which is so magisterially developed belongs to the composition, not the composer. For this reason, I also find this a more powerful and convincing work, despite some roughness in design: its intentions lack all traces of self-indulgence.
The paradox of Berlioz is that he is both quintessentially of the nineteenth-century and in many ways far ahead of his time. Grandiose, self-absorbed, at home in both Heaven and Hell (well, perhaps a bit more in Hell), operating on the largest temporal and spatial canvases, bringing together mammoth forces to speak in one voice; but also episodic and arbitrary in construction, harmonically idiosyncratic and technically suspect, bombastic, addicted to overwhelming sound spectaculars, in short, in questionable taste; in these ways he epitomizes Romanticism. All of these characteristics of his music have been noticed and pondered in attempts to come up with an evaluation of this unavoidable maverick, a figure whose closest counterpart in his own time might be Mussorgsky, or in ours, Charles Ives. Today, with post-modernism, mash-ups, the valuing of discontinuity and fragmentary statements, Berlioz rides high. He is seen as a predecessor to the liberation of tone color as an independent element of construction, as in the music of Debussy. In the past, when polished craftsmanship and solid structure were primary virtues, critics often looked askance at Berlioz’s bulky, generically ambiguous compositions. Today, we recognize the uniqueness of his vision.
In 1865 Johannes Brahms set to work on his A German Requiem, following the death his mother, Christine Brahms, who died in February of that year. Formally, it is his most original work—later his genius found a secure place in traditional forms, above all the symphony. Before expanding on that, I should take Brahms’ example in remembering my own teachers, especially since one of them once had a principle which has some oblique relevance to A German Requiem, or at least to my own experience of it.
Once again, less than two months after James Levine’s great reading of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Symphony Hall audiences heard a truly unforgettable performance—on the very highest level in nearly every respect and even miraculous in some—of a very great work, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. Even the widespread neglect of this great work in America offered an advantage of sorts. Hearing it out of its secure context in the repertoire of the English choral societies, one could more readily appreciate its universality, its power to move audiences in purely human terms, beyond its ostensible religious, particularly Roman Catholic, origins. However, as rich as its musical and spiritual rewards were, the event posed just as many questions, above all, why is the music of Elgar so dismally neglected in this country, when critics have singled Elgar out as the most international of British composers?* In his own time, he was regarded as the true successor to the great German symphonists, and Gerontiusitself enjoyed its first successes in Germany. Its freedom from religious specificity, the universality of its effect on audiences, poses another question. If it isn’t a church work, just what sort of music is it?