January 16, 2010

The Faith of a Mahler Heretic

Certainly, my heresy is not that I deny Mahler. I love Mahler, but I am not sold on his entire output. Possibly these notes will encourage those who have been dismayed by some unfortunate encounter with the less rewarding parts of his output.

For declining to go absolutely ape over the entire corpus, I make no apologies; still, it can't hurt for me to adduce the testimony of Otto Klemperer, who knew Mahler, worked with him, and is one of the greatest conductors of his music. Interviewed toward the end of his life, Klemperer said of his mentor:
Today I like his Kindertotenlieder and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and some of the symphonies. But not all of them. I mean, I am not a stupid, enthusiastic boy: I don't like everything he wrote.
Another opinion from which I have drawn some support is my father's. He said long ago, when I was starting to get interested in classical music, that a good deal of it is what he called "sawing around." He meant the many passages of nineteenth-century orchestral music where the string section gets whipped up into a motoric frenzy that bores as well as irritates.

I had assumed it was merely my own philistinism that made me feel this way about supposedly great compositions, and I was relieved. (On the other hand, all these compositions have their urgent defenders, and who is to say that my father and I aren't both philistines?)

I will therefore, in Mahlerian fashion, tempt Fate: Mahler at his greatest is represented by two sublime symphonies, two very great symphonies, single movements of two others, and one song-cycle, possibly two.

Symphony No. 1:Mahler's first symphony incorporates a set of orchestral songs he had written earlier (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen). As it happens, the embedded songs are the best music in the symphony, by far. The rest of it includes: a minor-key transposition of "Frere Jacques" -- rather a music-student type of idea; and a final movement that is pure bombast. And so the best I can say of Mahler 1 is this: the opening bars may remind you pleasantly of Star Trek. For anything else, you are better off listening to the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, which is pure gold, and represents Mahler's inspiration prior to sophistication.

Symphony No. 2:Overblown music dramatizing a thoroughly overblown idea of the "resurrection" of the symphony's hero. Always puts me in mind of Richard Strauss's comment about Mahler's theology: "I don't see what it is I'm supposed to be redeemed from."

Symphony No. 3:A very great, indeed awe-inspiring, first movement; at more than 30 minutes, it's a symphony in itself. According to Mahler, a symphony ought "to encompass the whole world"; he was deeply imbued with this kind of 19th-century gigantism, and I'm broadly sympathetic. But sometimes the claim that a work is "all-encompassing" is an excuse for its inorganic construction -- what in the context of Dickens's novels we call "a loose and baggy monster." I fear that something of the sort is true of the Third, though I will admit I haven't entirely made up my mind.

Symphony No. 4:Genuine Mahlerites belittle, not the Fourth Symphony itself, but those who rank it high -- implying that to love such a lovable symphony calls for no special powers of perception. And implying that their denigration of the Fourth points to the possession of higher, more refined powers. But if the implication is that the value of a symphony lies in the difficulty of enjoying it, well, that is false. It's a connoisseur's way of admitting, without saying as much, that the Fourth is PERFECT. The recording by Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra and Judith Raskin is also, that's right, PERFECT.

Symphony No. 5:The first movement is great. The rest of the symphony is pretty thin stuff. That includes the often-heard "Adagietto," of which Klemperer said "it comes close to salon music." What the hell happened here?

Symphony No. 6:I have more recordings of this Mahler symphony than of any other, but that is not because it's my favorite. It's because I'm still trying to find a performance that makes the symphony seem an unqualified triumph. The idea (essentially a tone poem with the composer as tragically doomed hero) is not wholly convincing, and the finale contains a lot of sawing around. If, for you, "bombastic" is a term of abuse, then the Sixth, I fear, may not suit.

Because the symphony is so obviously nearly great, it has exerted a fascination for conductors, whose talents are needed to bring out another -- and better -- symphony, imagined as lurking within. Jascha Horenstein's recording (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) is extremely successful at holding the symphony together at rather slow tempi: tragic, fascinating, and unblunted. Leonard Bernstein's first (New York) recording seems to me a very natural and richly musical performance -- easier to live with. He also has the best cowbells.

Symphony No. 7:Almost great. Subtitled "The Song of the Night," this symphony seems to be a tour of the nocturnal mind; the first movement is like falling asleep. In fact I almost always do fall asleep listening to this symphony. Not, to be sure, because it is boring, but because it actually triggers the nocturnal and narcoleptic centers of the brain. The finale is another big gamble, wherein Mahler saws around with what is almost embarrassingly recognizable as the Meistersinger Overture: some conductors can make it work. Horenstein does (Philharmonia) and so does Bernstein (New York), but you have to hear Kyrill Kondrashin with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which is just miraculous.

Symphony No. 8:Jesus, is it awful!

Das Lied von der Erde:Surely Mahler's "song-symphony" is his greatest work. As such, it is, of course, PERFECT. Klemperer's recording, with Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig, is PERFECT. Mahlerites, anxious as ever to find fault with perfection, say Klemperer is too slow in the "cantering-horses" episode. I wonder what they think cantering is? The famous recording under Bruno Walter, with Ferrier and Patzak, has bad sound, unsteady rhythms, and a trumped-up reputation.

Symphony No. 9:This seems the right place to confess that I wish Mahler had allowed his previous symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, to stand as his final farewell to Life. But his heart ailment did not kill him quite as soon as expected, and he went on to compose the Ninth and one movement of a Tenth. Both are further farewells to Life; and no one knows how many times Mahler was going to say farewell before Life finally returned the courtesy.

I guess musicologists will come along now and prove that the Ninth is pretty classy composing, but I don't care for it. Klemperer, however, daringly parts company with me here. He conducted it a lot, and he does manage to minimize its sawing-around aspect: try his live, Vienna Philharmonic recording. Still, I think it is clear that, on the subject of Death, Mahler had already shot his bolt.

I have left out of sequence the other song cycle, the Kindertotenlieder or Songs on the Deaths of Children, on texts by Ruckert. I am very doubtful about the final song, "In diesem Wetter," in which minor-key anguish over the dead children modulates to major-key bliss at the thought that they are in a better world. If you don't read German (or CD booklets), the Kindertotenlieder may well be PERFECT.

These then are the articles of my creed concerning Mahler, who is presumptively my favorite composer.