BSO's "Mahler 2nd": Resurrected with Eternal Light

Andris Nelsons with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
(photo: BSO)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra season continued to provide some much-needed uplift from the current politically charged environment, with a performance of the Mahler 2nd Symphony (a.k.a. the “Resurrection” Symphony) this past Friday afternoon, with the added bonus being the rarely heard brief piece Lux aeterna (for unaccompanied chorus) by the Latvian composer Maija Einfelde.

Lux aeterna is a brief (approximately six minutes in length) adaptation of lines from the Catholic liturgy of the Requiem Mass, composed in 2012 for the Latvian Radio Choir. It was performed by the Boston Symphony Chorus under the direction of James Burton in recognition of the centennial celebration of Latvian Independence (with another Latvian work due to be performed by the BSO next month, Andris Dzenitis' orchestral piece co-commissioned by the BSO, Ma ra) . Per the instructions of the composer, giving a choice of using accompanying percussion, crotales (sometimes referred to as “ancient cymbals”) were used in this performance. With echoes of Gregorian Chant, this work, by a young daughter of a Latvian organ builder, was a moving opener for the program that was to highlight the beloved piece of Mahler.

The BSO performance of the Mahler was beautifully conducted by Latvian-born Andris Nelsons. He and his orchestra gave a fine rendition of the work. Its debut was in 1888 (when the composer was only 28 years old), as audiences were first introduced to its unusual structure of five movements (about which the composer himself said “can no more be explained than the world itself”). The first movement was a twenty minute long piece based on the Tottenfeier (Funeral Rites) with an unexpected combination of discordant stretches and quieter ones, finally quite loud as it portrayed a descent into the void, having included a reference to the familiar Dies irae. The second movement was a lighter and happier piece like a dance, for sixteen minutes. The third movement might then be expected to be peaceful but was anything but, preparing the audience for the fourth movement which featured soloist mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, and the fifth and final movement, featuring both Fink and soprano Ying Fang, as it portrays the longing to escape from pain and need, and from death to resurrection in paradise as the gates of heaven open wide, with accompanying bells and the organ with all its stops out, and the words “I shall die so as to live”. Mention should also be made of the superior performance by the chorus, whose first entrance especially was soto voce, amazingly so, and aptly dramatic.

For lovers of this Mahler work, and they are many (including this critic), this was a much anticipated and ultimately satisfying experience.

Encores of this program will be given on Saturday October 27th and Tuesday October 30th.

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