Mahler Songs

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The San Francisco Symphony has released their penultimate recording in MTT’s Mahler cycle, which is so far the finest cycle I know – albeit expensive.

For this recording of Das Lied, MTT uses two male singers, Stuart Skelton and Thomas Hampson. Skelton is superb, as good as I’ve heard in this piece, which is extraordinarily difficult for the tenor. He projects heroically and still imparts true and great characterization and meaning to the text – his bitter vehemence in “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde” is the first of its kind I’ve heard, and now seems the only appropriate way to perform this music. Hampson is the only problematic feature of the recording. He is a great singer and artist, but can be mannered at times, and does fall into this trap at times. There is a big difference between a woman singing the low part, in which the expression is about a man, and a man singing it, when the expression becomes about himself. This is true to the conception of Mahler as an opera composer who only wrote symphonies, but Hampson does emote to the extreme in his entrance to “Der Einsame im Herbst” – nothing like Janet Baker imperceptibly appearing out of the music itself. Still, he does find greater focus as the performance goes along, and sings beautifully throughout.

As with all the other entries in this cycle, the quality of sound is incredible – in SACD format you are RIGHT THERE! And the playing is as technically assured and musically expressive as one will hear. MTT’s conception has consistently been thought-through, with an attention to phrasing and counterpoint that is wonderful. No Mahler cycle can be both definitive and perfectly done, but this is excitingly, heroically close to that ideal.

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The Age of Anxiety

And why not Bernstein, this greatest of American musicians, great exemplar of what culture could be in a mass, relatively egalitarian, supposedly classless and free society. If you can afford the tickets, that is . . .

. . . it’s time to break out the Scotch bottle, and not just because the air is soft and the morning and evenings are cool. It’s because it made it easier to lie on the couch and leaf through my new issue of New York magazine.

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So, as we all prepare for the biggest class-warfare ass-raping of the American public yet devised, you may be wondering, “hey, composer, what do you think I should listen to that will, you know, get me in the mood?” Well, my friends, as we face these anxious times, likely again to be betrayed by both our supposed representatives and our fellow ‘citizens,’ it’s time to prepare mind and soul with generous doses of Art Pepper and Gustav Mahler.

Why these two? Mahler I’ve written about before, and inevitably will again; in this context his music is the foremost expression of whipsawing turmoil, anxiety, hope and despair. As much as I know this is historically untrue, today I like to think that Romantic times such as ours – times when the best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity – were not possible before the early 19th century but that, once Romanticism was invented, we since have been cursed to suffer the derangement of it all. Perhaps some new way to think and be will come around. Chissa?

By now you’re probably wanting to ask, “composer, when I’m feeling so anxious, why would I want to listen to music that itself is an expression of that anxiety? Why wouldn’t I rather turn to something that will allow me to escape from such feeling?” That’s a very good question. My answer is that, personally, hearing music that takes anxiety and turns it into something expressive, moving, even glorious or spectacular, is more satisfying. Mahler certainly does this, it is one of the things that makes him “Mahlerian.” This is especially true of his symphonies from No. 5 on. At that point in his career, Mahler began to compose directly onto orchestral score layouts, rather than composing for the keyboard first and then orchestrating the short score. To my ears, this gives his music a new sense of freedom in both the large-scale sweep of the music to the smallest expressive detail, and of course he was a master of each. I frequently imagine his arm moving across the table and paper in large gestures as he has to extend his reach across such large canvass, and that physicality in the process of composition is apparent in the sound of the music. Certainly the great anxiety-riven symphonies 5 through 7 demonstrate this. Along with Gergiev’s recording of the 6th that I previously reviewed, I have a new (to me) recording from Günther Herbig leading the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra in a single performance, live recording. This is spectacularly good – a superior musician leading a superior orchestra. They command every detail of the music and play with impressive, confident expression. Herbig takes fast tempos throughout, especially so for the opening movement and the Scherzo, which he places second in order in the traditional manner. He also shows some of the most well-defined, managed and thought-through metrical modulation I’ve heard in a Mahler performance – the aggressive relentlessness of the first movement is beautifully balanced by exact shifts to slow and quiet music in the moments of repose. The entire performance flows but never feels rushed, Herbig indicates mood without underlining it, allowing the listener to find their own expression in the music, and the recording has superior sound. This is one I’ll be turning to often.

Gergiev himself has two more recording out in his Mahler cycle, symphonies 1 and 7. This is rapidly turning out to be an exciting cycle. His interpretation of the first is both direct and sparkling. It may be early in the game, but his general approach seems to be a focus on a particular idea and style, and to convey that throughout the work. There are many ways to get at Mahler, and this is absolutely valid and produces just as good a level of music making as Bernstein’s all encompassing, neurotically charged approach – Mahler is that vast of a subject that there is always a “new” way to present him. This 1st stands out in both the grace and wit of the early movements and the astonishing violence of the finale.

The 7th is the mystery work, fascinating musically, intensely beguiling to the ear and, unlike the rest of the composer’s work, completely elusive, both narratively and emotionally. It is nachtmusik, colorful and evocative and defying meaning. More than the other works, this is the test of a conductor’s understanding of Mahler, the challenge is to present a coherent idea and make it sound like Mahler’s. Gergiev does this in spades, he takes a dramatic, almost episodic approach, breaking down the movements internally into segments that he presents as fragments of a larger structure, and lets us piece together what it means for ourselves. This sets him apart in concept from the other great recordings of this work, MTT, Bernstein, Rattle, and also puts him on equal footing. It’s superb, exciting. All these recordings are live, played extremely well, in SACD format, hindered only by the dry, shallow acoustic of the Barbican.

And there’s even more! This has been a pretty pregnant year for Mahler recording, and I’ve myself only added a partial number from the total releases. There’s a wild, emotionally raw performance of the 9th symphony out of the BBC archives, a beautiful, refined concert of Mahler songs with exquisite singing from Thomas Quasthoff, a recording that is an unofficial conclusion to conductor Gary Bertini’s superior cycle, and a fine, straight-forward performance of the massive 3rd symphony from the typical excellent regional German orchestra. On it’s way, the MTT recording of Das Lied von der Erde, and Gergiev’s own 3rd. Who has the time?!

As I’ve implied, there’s more than one way to tackle anxiety in music, and beyond Mahler. Anxiety is the key feature of Art Pepper’s musicianship. He’s actually one of the more astonishing figures in the history of jazz, for both musical and non-musical reasons. Musically, at his best he produced an incredible, fecund flow of ideas, probing with some sense of desperation at the limits of what he could think, feel and express. Pepper’s playing is not “edgy,” it is nothing but edges, abrading and excoriating both, most frequently to himself. If you hit the link above and heard his take on “Here’s That Rainy Day,” you’ll know exactly what I mean. No one has ever made ballad playing such a harrowing experience as Pepper. And why shouldn’t he? After long-term heroin addiction and four stints in prison, the last two in San Quentin, and then time spent with the bizarre cult Synanon, he had a lot of questions and doubt about life, and himself. Especially himself. Pepper is unarguably one of the great post-Parker alto players, yet he lived his entire life plagued with doubts about his abilities as a musician. He especially felt intimidated as a white musician working in a primarily black art form, wondering if he could measure up. Astonishingly, he played New York City exactly once, and engagement documented in the “Complete Live at the Village Vanguard” set. It’s fantastic music, and fascinating to hear his neurotic patter with the audience. We seem to be witnessing him convincing himself that he belongs in New York, on stage with his compatriots. And then when he puts the horn to his lips, he proves it beyond a reasonable doubt.

For the non-musical reasons, consider after having heard him play that he didn’t consider himself a musician. He considered himself primarily a a junkie and a convict. For these stories, look no further than his incredible autobiography, “Straight Life”. This is a must-read for anyone interested in jazz, biography and/or especially noir of any kind – Pepper’s story is beyond noir, beyond any conglomeration of Burroughs, Buckowski, Celine, Crumley, et. al. It is an important book about an artist, about the disconnect between personal story and qualities and the art a person creates. Because Pepper is not shy about telling you, bluntly, that he far from being even an acceptable member of society. But he was eventually able to almost fit in, to love and be loved. And of course, to play and make incredible music before he killed himself with cocaine.

This is no exaggeration, Pepper made incredible music. The edge the he produced pushed sharply at the edge of coherent thought and articulation. There is a quality often heard in avant-garde jazz where a player rapidly blurs notes together, often overblown, produce an almost incoherent sound. This is frequently done for effect and just as frequently has no actual meaning. Pepper can produce the same sound, but he gets there by trying to express something at the very limit of his artistic ability, and breaks down in the attempt. It is complex and thrilling, and is as laudable as the creation of art gets. You can hear it in his huge body of recorded work and archives. Especially fine are his 2nd and 3rd volumes of recording for the Aladdin lable, available on Blue Note, and his long run on the Fantasy label, particularly “Meets the Rhythm Section,” “Smack Up,” “Intensity” and a personal favorite, “Living Legend,” with the blunt, telling photograph on the cover.

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I also love the set of live recordings put out recently by his widow, Laurie. The playing is just wonderful; intense, involving, funky, beautiful. At this stage of his career, every note was an attempt to prove his own self-worth as a musician. What could possibly be more fraught with anxiety for an artist? And what better way to transform that anxiety into art? As we are slowly dragged into a wreck, helpless before decisions made by people who don’t think we matter, we must find away to triumph in some small ways, to produce something beneficial for the society around us. What better example, both artistic and moral, than these two great geniuses?

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.

CDs!

While there’s a good handful of things I plan on writing about, I can’t seem to get those posts done right now, and don’t want to leave this neglected for too long. So, how about some CD reviews?

It’s time, anyway. This is the nice part of the year when the pile of releases with the current year’s copyright gains some substance, and so a good time to dig in and render some opinions. I had my morning coffee accompanied by two CDs from the pile. This first was the newest segment of David Zinman‘s increasingly impressive Mahler cycle, Symphony No. 4.

After a workman-like rendition of Symphony No. 1, the rest of the Wunderhorn works have been quite interesting, enjoyable, musical and Mahlerian, and this newest recording is fine indeed. Zinman and his Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich are not trying to break new ground, revise opinions or prove any points – they want to give us Mahler, which is always enough for those of us who revere the composer. So his manner is straightforward but never dull. This music rewards attention to phrasing and the particular detail, and immediately Zinman shapes the opening, gentle fanfare and the elided poco ritardando with attention to the musical line and an emphasis on the clarinet, a way for the conductor to indicate what it is that he hears that matters. The effect is lovely, and the playing of the orchestra, especially the phrasing and musical line throughout the first movement and the rest of the symphony are a joy. What is refreshing here is the combination of the lack of willful intervention and the exercise of excellent musical taste. I would describe this as an understated reading; there is so much to Mahler’s music, that allowing it to speak for itself is often the best way to perform it. It’s not lazy or unmindful – there is a great deal of concentration in maintaining the movement and focus of line, phrase and section, of holding back just enough that interesting shades and questions come to mind, resolved beautifully in the grand climax of the adagio movement (At 21:38, this is on the quicker side – the grandest and greatest recording of this work is Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, and their movement clocks at 25:27). The finale is sung by Luba Orgonasova; she’s lovely and musical and nicely placed in the mix – very few sopranos actually try and emulate a child singing, so I can’t find much fault in her lack thereof as well, she’s just following the standard. Still, the expression is exactly what the music calls for. This is overall a lovely performance of Mahler’s loveliest symphony, and while not in the league of the MTT one – nothing else – a pleasure and also a bargain. It’s a Hybrid SACD issue with a full, clear sound, with a natural concert hall resonance. The recording gives the effect of sitting in the orchestra section, while the MTT SACD has you right on the conductor’s stand, with less resonance and more immediacy. The price for CD is reasonable and the iTunes download is an incredible $3.99. I’ll be listening to this quite a bit, as for some mysterious reason my SACD player abruptly decided it can’t read the MTT recording, the only one I have that suffers from this problem – anyone with any insight into why this would happen, I’d appreciate your knowledge.

The other CD for review today, Berlin, is a mostly excellent collection of songs, mainly on text by Brecht, mainly by Hans Eisler – with a good handful from Kurt Weill and other composers. These are arranged performed by Theo Bleckmann and Fumio Yasuda, with assistance from a string quarter. Bleckmann stands out from the crowd of singers and performers. I first heard him in a duet with Sheila Jordan, the saw him onstage singing and tumbling with Meredith Monk, and found him to be the key element of one of the finest works of music of this generation:

His beautiful, clear sound, his enunciation and his deceptively flat expressive style draw in the ear and enthrall the listening imagination. He inflects with gentle, subtle emphasis and inflection which serves to express both musical opinion and artistic sincerity. He is predictably beautiful and involving on this record.

What I find most important is the decisions the artists made, their sound aesthetic judgement. Eisler is ever-fashionable and highly overrated composer, a real second-rater who maintains some kind of strange counter-cultural appeal as essentially a patriotic volunteer to the artistic needs of the State in East Germany. He was a trained and eager propagandist, and his music is mainly earnest, clumsy, dull and based on ridiculous ideas. Still, he wrote a lot of songs, and a few good ones, all of which seem to be on this disc, like Hollywood-Elegie No. 7, his single finest moment. As in the previous recording, the straightforward, elegant and unfussy arrangements really serve this work, as does, especially, Bleckmann’s intriguing style. The Weill tunes are much better known and more accomplished, and there’s something intriguing about hearing a man singing about Surabaya Johnny . . . most well known of all the songs is Ich bing von Kopf . . . or Falling in Love Again – the rendition here is as good as I’ve ever heard, and yes, that includes my beloved Marlene Dietrich. While the disc loses a bit of steam with some fairly static arrangements on the last three tracks, this a generous collection of 23 songs and 77 minutes of music that you will find yourself listening to with attention and reward.

More music to come, including songs of Charles Ives, more Mahler (there’ always more Mahler), new jazz, electronic music, interesting pop and rock . . . and The Ring!