By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  March 19, 2009

In his pre-concert talk, Zander spoke about the deep bitterness of the Scherzo, Mahler's non-vocal setting of a comic song he'd set before in which St. Anthony of Padua, frustrated with human blockheadedness, delivers his sermon to fish, who listen politely then swim away to business as usual. Could this exhilarating performance have been even nastier?

The turning point came with the entrance of the alto soloist singing the mysterious "Urlicht" ("Primal Light"). Mezzo-soprano Jane Struss, Zander's long-time collaborator, who sang the BPO's first two Symphony Hall performances (and one at Carnegie Hall), set the standard in one of the most moving and urgent renditions of this music I've ever heard, with an astounding octave leap into eternity on "Himmel" the German word for "Heaven." Zander's last Mahler 2 mezzo, in 2004, was Canadian Susan Platts, whose big rich voice, I thought, lacked urgency. Platts was back, and this time, sounding like an earth mother, she conveyed much greater emotional involvement, her voice opening out to fill the hall and embrace everyone in it. In the smaller soprano role, Ilana Davidson, also returning from 2004, still made a pretty sound but compared with Platts was a little thin.

Throughout, the playing was a bit uneven, with the best work coming from the usual sources (Pearson's plangent oboe, Moor's spectral but rhythmically incisive harp). Zander's triumph was the broad last movement, which he allowed to unfold with inexorable, "slow-chap't power," layer upon layer. The final overwhelming vision seemed earned — and, as it should, at some cost.

As far as I know, David Hoose isn't playing horn in public anymore, but he's visible as music director of Collage New Music, the BU Symphony Orchestra, and — best of all — the Cantata Singers, for whom, this year, he's been concentrating on the music of Benjamin Britten, among great composers relatively neglected in Boston. The latest concert had almost no music directly composed by Britten. But it was one of Hoose's most thoughtful and imaginative programs. In the center was a rare performance of a concert suite of music from Britten's final opera, Death in Venice, that conductor Steuart Bedford assembled in 1985, nine years after Britten's death, and 12 years after he'd led the opera's world premiere. It's really a compressed musical treatment of the whole story, which is based on Thomas Mann's semi-autobiographical novella about the ailing writer who visits Venice and becomes mortally obsessed with a beautiful young Polish boy. Bedford says there are only two connecting bars in the score not actually composed by Britten himself. It's a hypnotic piece with some of Britten's most colorful (and sinister) orchestral writing: watery gondola music in strings and winds, the bells of San Marco, the depiction of the boy Tadzio on the vibraphone (Nancy Smith), and a fiendish violin dance (Danielle Maddon).

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