Mahler, The Conclusion

The Mahler cycle came to a close Sunday afternoon with Barenboim conducting the 9th. Since my previous post, I had attended concerts of the 6th and 7th, with Boulez and Barenboim respectively, but unfortunately missed the 8th and Das Lied from being under the weather and a more important commitment – my wife’s play! The best laid plans . . .

Having reached the end, I can see the whole more clearly, and it was embodied in these last three events. Boulez, as always, produces a wonderful sound, and Mahler’s orchestrations in these later works press all his colors farther, particularly the acrid, shining and dark flavors. The conductor presents these beautifully, and shapes the movements carefully. He placed both the cowbells and tubular bells of the final movement offstage, which had a wonderful effect of presenting a far-off and unobtainable solace. Boulez is great at giving you the music, in small and large scales. Where he sometimes disappoints is in presenting the narrative drama, which is essential to Mahler, so the finale of the 6th didn’t grip me with a sense of impending, and inevitable, tragedy, until the coda.

After the incredible 5th, I anticipated more spectacular music-making from Barenboim, and his 7th was mostly ravishing and exhilarating. While I find the 4th increasingly odd, I find the 7th increasingly understandable – it’s almost Mahler’s go at absolute music. The relentless major key tone of the finale can be hard to pull off well because the previous sense of conflict is less than accustomed, but Barenboim drove it hard, too hard I think. He is sincerely excited and thrilled by the music, but like Bernstein’s self-identification with the composer, a bit of control, a small step back can make the most of that feeling. Barenboim is involved. That concert opened with a beautiful performance of the Wayfarer songs by the great Thomas Hampson. He’s not just an excellent singer but an artist as well, offering thoughtful and sincere characterization of the sense and context of the music, without falling into mannerisms. I’ve seen him sing Mahler a lot, and it’s always special.

The 9th was frustrating. Barenboim began with slightly fast but well-measured pace, and pressed the intensity of the turbulent passages. However, rather than finding a way back to repose, he continued to press that intensity, which was a problem for the performance overall. This is an almost unfathomably profound work, and the nothing I know of equals it for depth and breadth of feeling and experience. To do it justice, I believe, it must be approached with a broad view, both emotionally and musically. But Barenboim pressed everything; the landler was brittle, lacking humor; he muddled the tempo of the rondo-burleske and so could not build from intensity to frenzy. The finale was overdone – Mahler does demand some extremes, but opposing ones, these were homogenous.

The orchestra, amazingly, still sounded fairly fresh at the end. They are a little below the top flight groups, especially in terms of the brass and horns, but they have a great sound and play idiomatically with ease. I want to especially note the exceptional concertmaster, Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf, as well as superb playing from Hartmut Schuldt on Bass Clarinet and Tatjana Winkler on the English Horn. While I’m sure they were exhausted, I think the experience was renewing in a way. I find myself loving Mahler even more, and in fact listening to Mahler even more. Hearing the works in concert brought me back to recordings, and my days were filled with the same sounds, and it was always new and exciting and beautiful. For listening, I found myself going through Simon Rattle’s cycle and always returning to the Gary Bertini set, which more and more I think is the single best boxed Mahler cycle in terms of performances and value. I also want to mention the great essays by the two conductors in the program book, Boulez’s especially is stunning, and I’m going to be exploring it’s implications, and very specific Mahler works, in the near future. Thanks for sticking with me.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.