The Mahler Sixth has occupied a very prominent place in the musical life of Ben Zander and in the history of the Boston Philharmonic. The commercial recording, made many years ago, was one of the artistic high-water marks for the orchestra. It was lavishly praised in the international press at the time and, although it has been unavailable for the past few years, it is still often singled out by critics as their favorite recording of the symphony.
The Sixth is the darkest of the Mahler symphonies. Unnecessarily nicknamed by the composer “The Tragic” – could anyone possibly not notice? – it faces the grimmest realities of life and death unflinchingly. And it does so with infinite and surprising variety. In the first movement there is the ecstasy of the music associated with his beloved wife Alma, the evocation of lonely and serene Alpine landscapes, the brutal tramping of inexorable marches. The second movement brings grim, parodistic elements, and the third – music of heartbreaking beauty – has a bittersweet, nostalgic evocativeness. The relentless finale, from its opening eerie and unsettling harmonies, traces the struggles and apparent victories of the “Hero” – Mahler or Everyman, it can be read either way – and his annihilation by the three hammer blows of fate, which are quite possibly the most terrifying extra-musical noise ever composed into a symphony.
It is a long time since the BPO has performed the Mahler Sixth, and its return is long overdue. This concert is sure to create huge excitement in Boston’s musical community