In the best performances, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, sometimes called his Tragic, can sound like his greatest. Like all Mahler symphonies, it has a buried narrative, a life story that insightful Mahler conductors (Barbirolli, Horenstein, Abbado, Tennstedt, Bernstein, Zander) allow to surface. But in less intuitive and searching hands, despite its many beauties, the Sixth can sound inflated, repetitious, melodramatic — the predecessor of Shostakovich. The Mahler Sixth was the second of BSO conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink’s two return concerts this season, after an absence of two and a half years. He led an impressive performance. The players — especially the winds (principal horn James Sommerville having a very good night) but also concertmaster Malcolm Lowe — gave him everything he could have wanted.
The right order of the middle movements (schizophrenic Scherzo and luminous Andante), which Mahler changed during rehearsals for the premiere, remains an open question. Putting the Andante after the Scherzo — his original concept — provides the biggest contrast with the unyielding, retrospective finale, with its two fatal hammer blows. The slow movement, beginning with Mahler’s heartbreakingly beautiful tune on the English horn (Richard Sheena), was Haitink’s high point. He seemed to be leading the orchestra through the prism of his own evolving thoughts. Instruments were reading one another’s minds.
But the other movements seemed without a plot, without a syntax or shape — just wandering (often very slowly) from one intense but dragged-out and emotionally generic moment to the next. The opening march sounded right — wasn’t this the story of someone who grew up near a military base? But Mahler’s uninspired love music (Alma Mahler called it her theme) sounds like movie music unless it’s slowed down to reveal its caressing tenderness. Barbirolli is the rare conductor who gets the speed right; Haitink sounded rushed. In the Scherzo, I liked hearing all sorts of colorful birds chirping and warbling. Alpine cowbells are irresistible. But finally I had no idea what this music was about. I wished the slow movement would go on forever, but I kept counting the minutes until the rest of it came to an end. There were cheers, with much to deserve them, but — this time — I left Symphony Hall feeling I had just heard a very good performance of Mahler’s worst symphony.
A decade ago, in his early 20s, pianist Christopher Taylor, a student of Russell Sherman’s, was a familiar figure in the Boston landscape. Now he lives in Wisconsin and concertizes around the world. But he was back for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s series (imported from New York) of “Composer Portraits,” playing György Ligeti’s complete piano études: 18 scintillating, engaging, even pretty, but ferociously difficult short pieces, in three “books,” composed — so far — between 1985 and 2001. Taylor began with the most recent, the four études now in Book 3 (begun in 1995). The first of these, “White on White,” has the heavenly purity of a Bach prelude or a children’s piece — until it detonates. Ligeti “studies” the dramatic contrasts between contemplative quietude and pounding excitement, the effects of rising arpeggios (practically leaping off the high end of the keyboard) and falling (practically plunging off the low end), and the nature of canonic structure. (In “À bout de souffle” — “Breathless” — “the left hand, Taylor writes in his literate program note, taking after his teacher in this way too, “chases the right, only one eighth note behind — to bewildering effect.”) Stranger still, in “Touches bloquées” — “Blocked keys” — one hand holds down notes that the other plays over.