Mahler, More Than Ever

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Years ago now, more than a decade, I took a solo trip to Switzerland to hike in the Alps. I had hoped to hear the angels sing, each to each. But they did not sing for me.

I did hear something sing, however. High above a particular valley, green and rolling like so much of what passes for flat landscape in that country, I heard the clank and rattle of distant cowbells. I looked down – the view commanded the entirety below – but there were no cows in this valley. They were in the next one over, the other side of the ridge, or perhaps even farther, the sound ricocheting off the face of some peak and traveling miles to reach my ears. In that moment, I had a personal revelation about the music of Gustav Mahler, especially his tragic Symphony No. 6, and so the trip was ultimately rewarding.

I can’t say much about Mahler in this post, because the subject is too vast and deep, there is too much to say, and others say it far better than I. But there are particular, personal things I think about Mahler that matter to a new recording to which I’ve been listening; the first installment of a new Mahler cycle, Valery Gergiev leading his London Symphony Orchestra in live performances with SACD sound. Like Michael Tilson Thomas’ magnificent and almost concluded cycle with the San Francisco Symphony, the first release is Mahler 6. I’ve been listening to it, and remembering . . .

Music is the memory art, and Romantic music, of which Mahler is the apotheosis, heightens this feature; Romantic music is the art of personal memory, personal narrative. It’s a kind of storytelling that begins with the premiere of the Eroica symphony and is specifically the subject of Mahler’s 6th. This is the story of a ‘hero,’ better understood to us ‘modern’ people as the protagonist. As listeners, we are inside the hero’s experience, and it is an experience of violent, external malevolence, interspersed with strivings to escape and grasping for the succor of memory, and ultimately ending in death, with the first handful of dirt tossed on the coffin lid as the final moment of sound. Fin. Cue applause.

Memory is the lifeline to which the hero clings to preserve his own existence. There are clear memories of joy and tenderness, and a very specific memory of the love of a woman known as the “Alma” theme, and which Mahler wrote as an expression of his feelings for his wife. But there are also cowbells. As the first movement develops – and it does; this is the Mahler work that can be clearly described in Classical era terms – and literally grasps, with perhaps neurotic intensity, for something above, it pauses, falls back, falls almost still . . . and we are hearing cowbells clank and rattle in the distance. This is an odd, startling and unprecedented moment in the symphonic literature, even so for a composer like Mahler whose music seems to unfold spontaneously and willfully. The first time I heard it, I was puzzled at just what was supposed to be going on, at what the composer was thinking. It’s not always possible to tell what a composer intends, but it is usually possible to discern that there is intent. But for this passage, there was only mystery. It seemed accidental. That the cowbells return in the Andante movement made them seem no less unthought and idiosyncratic.

Then, I heard them too. And I understood. During his summers, Mahler took regular, vigorous hikes in the Austrian alps, often ending with a swim in a lake. I’m confident that the landscape and environment of those mountains in the late 19th century was even more rugged and rural than today, and that the lowing of cattle and clanking of bells was a common part of the soundscape, especially as it found it’s way through the geography and geology of the mountains and valleys. The experience of distant sounds was everywhere, and close. Mahler heard this, and I after him.

What this came to mean to me, and it is a thought I am still continually articulating to myself, is that Mahler is not just remembering – and the only raw material composers have to work with is their memories – but is having his hero remember as well, remember a fragment of experience of the physical world, some connection to lived reality that may yet preserve him against forces that attack him from all sides, including his own interior. Mahler is also remembering landscape, he’s telling us “I saw this, and I heard this, and I walked this way, and the trees smelled like this.” That is explicit in his 3rd symphony, but is also an important and consistent feature of his sound world throughout the span of his work. He remembers, and I remember, I remember the Alps, and the sights and sounds, and I am a bit in his mind and experience, and feel the relief and hope that the music offers as it stills and, in the distance, the cows are brought to pasture . . .

It’s futile, of course. And Gergiev expresses this well in the recording. Although I admit I was put-off a bit at first listen. Initial tempos in Mahler, more than in any other composers’ work, can make or destroy a performance, his first intention is that important in successfully conveying meaning in the entire work. And Gergiev’s initial tempo is fast, very fast. The marking is Allegro energico, ma non troppo, and this is at the extreme end of non troppo. There is no relief at the soaring Alma theme either, as he continues to press the tempo. It is only at the end of the long exposition, just prior to the repeat, that the tempo and intensity fade into something like the possibility of repose. This is an unusual but valid decision that depends on how well the conductor sells it, and after a few more listens I’ve concluded that he sells it very well.

Gergiev seems to be making the point that the music is about crisis – which it is – and that crisis is constantly unfolding. The music must run the gauntlet and take it’s blows, the speed and hysteria of the trip perhaps being the one thing that saves it, and the hero. So Gergiev presses the crisis and presses the intensity. Even the Alma theme is pushed along, as if the hero is holding onto his love, but the moment is too desperate to reflect on it. While some may struggle against what they feel is an improper course, I find it thrilling.

The conductor places the Andante movement second in line. Mahler himself never came up with a definitive order between that movement and the evil-sounding Scherzo. Generally, I think the dramatic context of Scherzo second and slow movement third gives a clearer contrast between crisis and relief, but again it’s a question of what the conductor has and how well he sells it. This is intense music making and Gergiev’s particular quality of expression is a dark, wrenching one, like Art Pepper playing a ballad. There has been a trend in recent performance to place movements in the same order. Claudio Abbado‘s fine new version does this, as does Mariss Jansons leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Their takes on the slow movement are similiar; tender and heartbreaking and tragic in turn. Gergiev’s flavor is his own, a kind of determination to see this thing through to the end, thoughts of the good things in life and bitterness over the end of it all. Perhaps it’s the stages of grief. This is some of the most extraordinarily beautiful and emotionally moving music Mahler ever wrote. And at the moment of maximum crisis, there are cowbells, and memories . . .

His Scherzo is focussed, pointed, excoriating, kind of malevolently gleeful. The finale is superb. This is a long movement, a half hour of spookiness, struggle, desperation and the nearly achieved escape before the hammer of fate literally crushes the hero. Literally. The original work featured three hammer blows, but even Mahler found that too intense, too despairing, and wrote the third one out. Some conductors have restored it, Gergiev is one of them. This movement is mountainous. The music climbs sheer faces and falls back before the summit, climbs again and falls back again, climbs and falls. Finally, the hero tumbles down, down, down to his grave.

It’s as tragic as music gets, not only in the sense that the conclusion is downbeat, but that from the very first moments of struggle, the hero never triumphs against the forces arrayed against him, and we as listeners can hear the he will never triumph. The cowbells may be momentarily good for morale, but they can offer no protection against music that is constantly martial, on the march against the hero, representing forces that are far too powerful. The cowbells are so small, and they are so far away . . . What exactly are these evil forces? No one can say for certain, but I feel they are, in the abstract, the group against the individual, in thought and act, and for our time the decadent status quo against any fruitful alternative. I’m not exaggerating. Mahler said his time will come, and it has been here now for at least 40 years. The rapidly increasing number of new Mahler cycles seems to indicate that his time will last for quite awhile. I don’t think this is a marketing decision so much as Mahler’s music has so much to say, and there is so much to say about it. As the current cycles indicate, there are still new ideas to express.

This is Mahler’s time, a Romantic time in the extreme. We have endless wars, secret police, secret prisons. Our government spies on us and, like the emperors of the Austro-Hungarian empire, is above and outside the law. The experiment of democracy in America is over, and we have turned towards authoritarianism, which is perhaps the preferred state for those who feel freedom is best expressed as an economic opportunity. And this is all happening for no other reason than that evil is as natural and common a human capacity as good, and that the ability of people to convince themselves of their own righteousness and best intentions is boundless. It’s all very Romantic. And so Mahler thrives, because he has so much to show us about ourselves and, as a great artist, he has opinions about what is right about us and wrong about us, how we are good and how we are dangerous. His subject matter is man, i.e. himself, and he is completely self-conscious and utterly unselfconscious. Gergiev’s view of the man is powerful and intriguing and I am excited about the prospect of his new cycle – he’s the leading contemporary conductor in the archetypal mode of passion and the expression of feeling, and while he can be wildly wrong and crazy in his decisions, he is always committed. Seems a natural for Mahler.

In my mind I contrast this recording with the MTT one, because they stand at different viewpoints over the music, yet both reflect the contemporary need for Mahler. The MTT performances were recording in concert, September 12 – 15, 2001 and a note from the conductor and the music itself reflects that moment in time. To their great credit, and while other orchestras were fleeing anything that might remind listeners that something was at all amiss in the world, the SF Symphony went ahead with the performances and recording, and made the point that this is music that offers no answers, only questions. Art, in a word. Their CD is special. It’s played with an almost violent vehemence and what can only be described as grim determination. The Andante is the contrast to Gergiev, it is played Adagio, a decision that is wrong technically but absolutely right musically – the music is full of heartbreak and despair, it is crushing and exhilarating at the same time. After the concert, I and other patrons remarked that we felt like human beings again. The sound is glorious, in SACD these are the finest recordings I’ve ever listened to. Gergiev’s cycle is also being recorded in SACD, and the sound is detailed and bright but the acoustic is far drier and shallower than Davies Symphony Hall.

Claudio Abbado has been re-recording Mahler in live concerts, mainly with the Berlin Philharmonic, and these have been quite fine, although his Mahler 7th is flat. I’ve previously written about Zinman’s new cycle, which has been solid. The next recording in that one should be the 5th, and that is the work where Mahler becomes a modern composer, and writes with a new sense of freedom and spontaneity. We’ll see what happens. Boulez’s cycle is now complete (although the 4th may be out of print, awaiting a final boxing), and while it has extraordinary moments, it’s also ultimately frustrating and disappointing. For a more objective view, I think Michael Gielen‘s recording are preferable, he lets Mahler be Mahler and the orchestra is superb.

Simon Rattle’s cycle was boxed last year, and it’s worth having. When he’s good, he’s tremendous, and when he’s not good, he’s weird. But he’s mostly good. His 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th and 9th are great, and he includes the 10th. The Gary Bertini cycle is little-known, a bargain and consistently great. MTT still has to record the 8th, and his cycle is the greatest so far; while his 2nd is a little underdone, his 1st is fine, the 3rd and 5th are great, the 6th magnificent, the 9th tremendous and fresh, and the 4th and 7th are without a doubt the finest recordings of those symphonies ever made. Mahler, folks, for all of us. Now, more than ever.

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5 thoughts on “Mahler, More Than Ever

  1. Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the Mahler piece, after a couple of re-readings now. I fell in love with the 1st and 4th two years ago, but kinda hit a wall after that… but you’ve made it clear the problem is mine, not Gustav’s, so now I’m inspired to delve deeper. (Besides, any excuse to download something off of iTunes…. ) And since you’re Boxed Set Guy, how do you feel about the old ’60s cycle from Lenny and the NY Phil?

  2. I like the 1st Lenny cycle, it’s one of my favorites. It’s consistently exciting throughout, mannered in the Bernstein way but not nearly so much as what would take place in his second cycle. Many of the recordings have a classic status; #3, #6, #7, #8 and #9; #2 and #4 are excellent, and #1 and #5 are good, but don’t stand out from the crowd. The orchestra and sound are decent enough, and the price is competitive. One caveat is that it doesn’t have Lennie’s great recording of “Das Lied,” but that is available separately on Decca. This set is an excellent first choice, IMO.

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