Now Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic have breasted Gustav Mahler's oceanic, fiendishly difficult Sixth Symphony. Characteristically, after a weekend trio of performances, we know more about the piece and its creative power.
In these performances, Zander met the scholarly debate about the intended order of the two inner movements head-on. He played the work both ways - with the Andante following the first movement on Friday night, and the Scherzo in that position on Sunday. He also added the seldom-played third ''hammerblow of fate'' with its attendant orchestration. Based on these performances, there is no doubt that the Scherzo takes up pressing unfinished business left by the cataclysmic first movement. It should come first.
To say that Zander and his orchestra negotiated the Sixth - widely considered a musical testing ground - without mishaps would be to tell a lie. Friday night in Jordan Hall, the performance produced energy, excitement, and musical vision. But there were definite problems of excess.
Symbolic of these excesses: The cowbells, which are supposed to be heard from a distant valley, sounded Friday as if the cows would come down the aisle at any moment. The Scherzo came off disjointed and uneasy, as both conductor and orchestra had trouble with tempo transitions and the like. And the massive fourth movement was taken with too much emphasis on heroic exultation and too little on the forces of doom.
By Sunday afternoon's performance in Sanders Theatre, most of these problems had been solved. Zander's uncanny sense of the musical phrase and his instinct for the direct line through a piece worked its usual magic. The Scherzo had become the danse macabre that it should be. There were passages where the white heat of Mahler's creativity was startlingly apparent.
Unfortunately, the fourth movement still went like a triumphant chorale, instead of a losing struggle with terrible darkness.
Richard Strauss never understood why Mahler had not ended the symphony with a rousing declaration, instead of its gloomy denouement, thus depriving himself of ''a wonderful effect.'' Had Zander and his orchestra been able to deprive themselves of a few wonderful effects, this would have been a nearly perfect Sixth.