The program began, though, with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Serge Koussevitzky’s great 1930 commission for the 50th anniversary of the BSO. From the very first chord — a sort of musical thump, or bump — you instantly felt the life force. Haitink had conducted this piece on the BSO European tour in 2001 and clearly he felt right at home with it. Stravinsky’s astringent harmonies — winds, brass, two pianos, percussion, and only cellos and basses for strings, and wide spaces between high and low — have the otherworldly sound of some strange ritual. For all the tricky syncopation — the Psalm excerpts in Latin, with accents placed deliberately on the wrong syllables — Haitink, in a piece that doesn’t cry out for emotional nuance, kept an inexorable forward tread. The chorus sang in a wide dynamic range. I held my breath for all three movements. At the Boston premiere, Koussevitzky played it twice. I wish Haitink had done the same.
(The standing ovation gained in enthusiasm with the annual ritual of concertmaster Malcolm Lowe bringing to the podium retiring members of the orchestra, this time 27-year veteran bass trombonist Douglas Yeo and 35-year veteran violist Marc Jeanneret. Hail and farewell.)
ZANDER’S MAHLER SEVENTH
The weekend before, a similar pattern occurred at Benjamin Zander’s concert with his Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. Zander, a Mahler specialist, was leading what may be the least loved of Mahler’s symphonies, the ambiguous and unsettled No. 7. It’s one of my favorites — the way Shakespeare’s strange “dark comedies” are among the plays I love most. The Mahler Seventh begins with an extended funeral march that might also be a military march. There’s passionate love music woven into that same first movement. In a good performance, like this one, all the different melodies throughout the entire 90-minute symphony sound related — like strange variations of the same elusive central theme. The next movement, called “Night Music,” is both beautiful and sinister, full of dark corners, a night patrol, during which the marching guards may have stopped for a drink at a Jewish wedding. Then comes the weird “shadowy” Scherzo, full of ghostly screams and bizarre apparitions passing so quickly you can’t grasp what they are. Then more “Night Music,” this time an insinuating serenade (“Andante amoroso”), with mandolin and guitar. The finale brings sunlight, and C-major, the tintinnabulation of morning bells and the city, surely Vienna and its busy Ringstrasse, chiming to life.
While Zander’s performance began with considerable excitement, something in the complex opening movement didn’t quite come into focus for me until the biting coda. The “Night Music” was appropriately beautiful and mysterious, yet seemed to go by a hair too quickly. Then suddenly the breathless, macabre Scherzo, like Shelley’s “ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,” swept me away. The playing was exceptional, with Lisa Suslowicz’s viola particularly gorgeous and menacing. Zander kept hold through the transparent second “Night Music” (Sue Faux playing both mandolin and second violin!) and the sun-dazzled finale, with its brilliant brasses. It’s as if the conductor and the players hadn’t been completely plugged in until that uncanny Scherzo. Then all the lights went on.