Van Zweden, CSO deliver a powerful, devastating Mahler Sixth

Fri Apr 22, 2022 at 1:55 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jaap van Zweden conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

So what’s been happening with Jaap van Zweden since Chicago audiences last saw him in 2017

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

A regular guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 2008, the Dutch conductor became music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2018. Initial acclaim and positive reviews became increasingly mixed. After an extended period of Covid isolation in his native Netherlands, van Zweden announced last September that he would depart the Philharmonic at the end of the 2023-24 season. His six years at the NY Phil helm will tie Pierre Boulez as the music director with the shortest tenure in the orchestra’s history.

Inevitable Manhattan musical melodrama aside, Jaap van Zweden returned to Chicago this week to lead the CSO in Gustav Mahler’s sprawling Symphony No. 6. And Thursday night’s riveting performance of this epic work delivered a season highlight with one of the most powerful and compelling Mahler concerts of recent years.

For all the psychic darkness, bleak rumination and sardonic irony in his music, Mahler’s art was largely that of an optimist. Of his eleven symphonies (counting the unfinished Tenth and Das Lied von der Erde), the Sixth Symphony is the only one to end in complete tragedy and desolation.

Yet, brilliant artist that he was, Mahler makes the Sixth’s 85-minute journey a singularly absorbing experience. Cast in a classical four-movement structure, the Sixth is richly thematic, scored for huge orchestra, and masterfully contrasted in its expansive scale.

From the opening bars with the cellos and basses digging deeply into the malign march rhythm, it was clear that this was going to be a Mahler Sixth that meant business. In the large-scale first movement—and indeed throughout—van Zweden showed he had the full measure of this music. Tempos were fleet yet always felt right, never rushed or breathless. The fast march that dominates the opening movement had a jumpy quality that seemed imbued with desperation. Throughout this challenging work, van Zweden showed his mastery of the long line, keeping firm drive and keen dramatic tension with no letup or longueurs.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Yet van Zweden and colleagues effectively pointed the movement’s contrasts—rich string tone in the soaring “Alma” theme and relaxed pastoral idylls with offstage cowbells. (The differentiation between the atmospheric offstage bells and the louder ones onstage was typical of the conductor’s care to detail in this performance.) The robust and forcefully driven playing led to a cataclysmic coda.

For all the vast resources of this score—including nine horns—van Zweden drew striking textural transparency. Every solo and leading instrumental line emerged with clarity.

Mahler was ambivalent about the order of the inner movements, and, like most conductors, van Zweden places the Scherzo second and the Andante third. The former movement continued the nerve-wracked momentum in a similarly relentless manner, well suiting the music. The wind playing here was quite glorious with principal oboist William Welter bringing just enough rustic lilt to the charming little Landler figure in the trio, said to depict Mahler’s young children at play.

Van Zweden directed a gently yielding rendering of the Andante that provided a radiant respite from the surrounding darkness. With exquisite horn playing by principal David Cooper, the movement rose to an aptly impassioned climax.

The half-hour final movement is practically a symphony in itself. Most Mahler finales chart an intense struggle with the protagonist eventually emerging triumphant in a blazing and brassy coda.

Not this time. As the music rouses itself and victory seems imminent, the protagonist is chopped down by three massive hammer blows of fate. The composer’s tripartite inspiration was said to be his firing from the Vienna State Opera, the death of his young daughter Maria, and the diagnosis of the heart condition that would kill him at age 50 five years after the Sixth’s premiere. (Alma’s philandering likely didn’t help matters either.)

Cynthia Yeh prepares to deliver a fateful hammer blow in the final movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

In the vast finale, van Zweden and colleagues charted the music’s progress, the rises and breakdowns with taut, unsparing concentration. Wielding a massive hammer nearly as large as herself, principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh effectively delivered the two thunderous hammer thwacks (van Zweden observing Mahler’s superstitious deletion of the final blow). As the music collapses one final time, the sonic landscape descends to existential dread— primordial low-brass murmurings and one last chordal blast before winnowing down to silence.

The audience held their applause following this extraordinary performance–allowing the bleak coda to resonate before the conductor slowly lowered his arms, and then erupting into justly deserved ovations. 

Under van Zweden, the CSO musicians were inspired, delivering some of their finest playing of the season across all sections. Among the standouts were the aforementioned David Cooper, principal trumpet Esteban Batallan and principal trombone Jay Friedman.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

Posted in Performances

12 Responses to “Van Zweden, CSO deliver a powerful, devastating Mahler Sixth”

  1. Posted Apr 22, 2022 at 2:33 pm by Peter Todd Borich

    Simply amazing performance. One of the most memorable of my 40-plus years of CSO concert-going. Bravo to all!

  2. Posted Apr 22, 2022 at 3:36 pm by Hiker

    As another 40-plus-year subscriber, van Zweden’s Mahler’s Sixth recalls the many outstanding Mahler performances presented by Solti, Giulini, Abbado, Tennstedt, Leinsdorf and more recently Haitink. Although Muti is an outstanding maestro and has presented many memorable concerts, his failure to program and lead more Mahler is one blemish on his tenure.

    Although van Zweden is reducing his concerts, he is another worthy successor to Muti for the list proposed in an earlier LJ article.

  3. Posted Apr 22, 2022 at 3:41 pm by Christian Vinyard

    Nicely done, Larry. I will be attending Sunday. Looking forward to it. Thanks. Chris

  4. Posted Apr 22, 2022 at 10:45 pm by Michael Gorcowski

    I just saw the Friday performance. It approached the abyss, peered over, and jumped right in. It was harrowing and virtuosic, I don’t recall being so musically abused since Bright Sheng’s Lacerations. I loved every minute.

  5. Posted Apr 23, 2022 at 11:44 am by BDN

    I was not present for these concerts, but having seen the Maestro many times in NYC, I can only assume his performances were as devastating as those he has given here. Devastating in the best and most profound of ways. He has a way of revealing the music in ways I imagined but didn’t think were possible.

    Bravi to all involved. Chicago is lucky to have him for this limited engagement.

  6. Posted Apr 24, 2022 at 3:30 am by Yiannis Tripodis

    After attending “Van Zweden Conducts Mahler 6” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra I can tell you that it was an absolutely incredible performance and unmatched to any other on this particular symphony. The energy and the dynamics were breathtaking by all the exceptional musicians. I hope that there was a recording of this particular performance because it was unparalleled to any other I have ever heard by quite a margin. Very complex work indeed. It was truly a musical journey that I will never forget. I feel very blessed and very fortunate that I have been able to attend. Bravo, Bravo.

  7. Posted Apr 24, 2022 at 12:48 pm by Howard C

    I went to Saturday’s performance and thoroughly agree with Mr. Johnson’s review. I don’t think there are many guest conductors that can get the CSO to sound the way that Maestro van Zweden is able to accomplish. Their chemistry is palpable.

    His departure from the NY Philharmonic in 2024 would be perfect timing for him to begin a new contract with the CSO. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!

  8. Posted Apr 24, 2022 at 6:56 pm by Gregory Nigosian

    He may be a “guest” but hardly an unknown quantity. I was reminded of why he was so impressive when he was a short-notice fill-in for his local debut.

    I kept thinking as I was listening on Sunday, that the stunning ensemble playing was being rendered by so many of the first chairs Muti has hired. That’s his legacy.

    But van Zweden should be credited with getting them all to play so immaculately and incisively.

    A great afternoon.

  9. Posted Apr 25, 2022 at 4:50 am by Marks

    After reading this review can you give me the dates for the next performances of Mahler under Van Zweden.
    Anywhere anytime.

    Liliane Marks

  10. Posted Apr 25, 2022 at 11:47 am by Cees steeman

    Thanks for your review.

  11. Posted Apr 25, 2022 at 2:39 pm by Lawrence A. Johnson

    Jaap van Zweden is not on the roster for the CSO’s 2022-23 season.

  12. Posted Apr 30, 2022 at 10:14 pm by Jiayi Ji

    Hi Marks, Van Zweden will conduct Mahler 1 with the New York Phil at Carnegie Hall on Friday, June 10, 2022.

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