Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Classics: In which we continue stitching together bits of big Mahler symphonies


You're traveling to another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind, a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. Your next stop: Mahler's Fourth Symphony.

by Ken

One of these days we need time to take a proper look at the range of subject matter Mahler was able to draw on in von Arnim and Brentano's great compendium of "old German songs," Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), which we've been glancing at in this week's preview posts -- Friday's devoted to the song "Das irdische Leben" ("Earthly Life") and Saturday's devoted to an obvious antecedent, Schubert's setting of Goethe's "Erlkönig."

It's tempting to say that in the Wunderhorn collection Mahler found "the lighter side" of life, and sometimes he did. But here he also found some of his darkest and bloodiest subjects. What the poems have in common is dealing with ordinary rather than highfalutin folk, and often with an irony, or at least innocence, that fit well with the composer's own basic mode of observation. There's a descriptive phrase I like for the Wunderhorn songs in baritone Iván Paley's note for his piano-accompanied recording of all Mahler's Wunderhorn songs with soprano Diana Damrau for Telos Music Vocal:

"how man is transformed through the experience of joy and pain."

Or, sometimes, not transformed, but then, we can think of "not transformed" as an extreme point on the continuum of transformation. Okay, I realize that this description is kind of, well, open-ended, but then, so are these songs.

I'm talking too much. We need to have some music. How about one last pass at "Das irdische Leben"? In Friday night's preview we heard it sung by Christa Ludwig (with piano accompaniment), Maureen Forrester, Janet Baker -- and even by a man (!), Matthias Goerne. Last night I promised Ludwig's performance from the later orchestral-accompanied recording of the Wunderhorn songs made with her then-husband Walter Berry and Leonard Bernstein. Note how Ludwig's voice has darkened at the bottom, and note the vividness of the orchestral detail LB coaxes out of the New York Philharmonic.

MAHLER: "Das irdische Leben"
[German text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn]

"Mother, oh Mother! I'm hungry!
Give me bread; otherwise I will die!"
"Just wait, just wait, my darling child.
Tomorrow we will sow quickly."

And when the corn was sown,
The child still kept on crying:
"Mother, oh Mother, I'm hungry!
Give me bread; otherwise I will die!"
"Wait a little, my darling child.
Tomorrow we will harvest quickly."

And when the corn had been harvested,
The child cried again:
"Mother, oh Mother, I'm hungry!
Give me bread, or I shall die!"
"Just wait, just wait, my darling child.
Tomorrow we will thresh quickly."

And when the corn was threshed,
The child cried again:
"Mother, oh Mother, I'm hungry!
Give me bread; otherwise I will die!"
"Just wait, just wait, my darling child.
Tomorrow we will mill quickly."

And when the corn was milled,
The child cried again:
"Mother, oh Mother! I'm hungry!
Give me bread; otherwise I will die!"
"Just wait, just wait, my darling child.
Tomorrow we will bake quickly."

And when the bread was baked,
The child lay on the funeral bier.

Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony (reissued by Brilliant Classics), recorded 1967-69

As you can see, in the Wunderhorn world there is a full awareness of life's dark realities, like death, a favorite subject of Mahler's, which not surprisingly took on a new depth when he was informed, after the composition of the Eighth Symphony, that he himself was dying. But even in the astonishing trilogy of final works -- the song symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), the Ninth Symphony, and the sadly never-completed Tenth Symphony (though he substantially completed an opening Adagio and left enough of the rest that various "realizers" have been able to give us some idea of what the shape of the complete symphony was to be), he never lost his sense of humor, or perhaps irony. Indeed there is an arc of irony running from Hector Berlioz (where it truly seems to come out of nowhere; I'm not aware of any musical models he drew on for this, though there may have been an abundance of literary ones for this highly literary figure) through Mahler to Dmitri Shostakovich, where the irony often explodes into full-blown sarcasm.

Let's listen then to "Heavenly Life," first with just piano accompaniment, then with orchestra -- and in the case of the final performance, conducted by Wyn Morris (born 1929; who, as I mentioned when we heard him doing the slow movements of Beethoven's first three symphonies in the "Adagio" post, is a notable Mahler conductor), taken quite spaciously.

MAHLER: "Das himmlische Leben"
[German text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn]

We enjoy heavenly pleasures
and therefore avoid earthly ones.
No worldly tumult
is to be heard in heaven.
All live in greatest peace.
We lead angelic lives,
yet have a merry time of it besides.
We dance and we spring,
We skip and we sing.
Saint Peter in heaven looks on.

John lets the lambkin out,
and Herod the Butcher lies in wait for it.
We lead a patient,
an innocent, patient,
dear little lamb to its death.
Saint Luke slaughters the ox
without any thought or concern.
Wine doesn't cost a penny
in the heavenly cellars;
The angels bake the bread.

Good greens of every sort
grow in the heavenly vegetable patch,
good asparagus, string beans,
and whatever we want.
Whole dishfuls are set for us!
Good apples, good pears and good grapes,
and gardeners who allow everything!
If you want roebuck or hare,
on the public streets
they come running right up.

Should a fast day come along,
all the fishes at once come swimming with joy.
There goes Saint Peter running
with his net and his bait
to the heavenly pond.
Saint Martha must be the cook.

There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Even the eleven thousand virgins
venture to dance,
and Saint Ursula herself has to laugh.
There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Cecilia and all her relations
make excellent court musicians.
The angelic voices
gladden our senses,
so that all awaken for joy.

Diana Damrau, soprano; Stephan Matthias Lademann, piano. Telos Music Vocal, recorded 2003

Barbara Bonney, soprano; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, cond. Decca, recorded June 2000

Lisa della Casa, soprano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded December 1958

Patricia Rozario, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra, Wyn Morris, cond. Collins, recorded c1988

I commented in response to Bil's offering: "My own theory about 'Das himmlische Leben' is that it's closely related to 'Das irdische Leben' ('Earthly Life'), the poem (also set by Mahler) in which a child repeatedly begs his mother for something to eat, which she can't supply, until the child finally dies. I always wonder if the child in 'Das himmlische Leben' isn't in the same situation, fantasizing about all those heavenly goodies while he in fact has nothing to eat."

Everyone who's dipped into the original Rod Serling Twilight Zone shows seems to recall, usually pretty vividly, the one in which all of earth's inhabitants are slowly dying from the rising temperatures after the planet has slipped from its normal orbit into one that's taking it steadily closer and closer to the sun. It's just a matter of time before all life is extinguished in the heat. Spoiler alert: If you've never seen the episode, I beg you to stop here and seek it out on DVD or the Sci Fi Channel. If you have seen the episode, you remember that this all turns out to be a nightmare. The earth isn't really easing closer and closer to the sun. In reality, it is moving farther and farther away from the sun, and it's just a matter of time before all life is extinguished from the cold.

I suppose the child in "Heavenly Life" could be a lazy glutton with nothing better to do than imagine all those yummy treats. But note that those treats are all in heaven. And note that we have already chronicled a Mahler-Wunderhorn encounter with heaven. Way back when, we heard the earliest performance by Maureen Forrester I'm familiar with (conducted by Glenn Gould, of all people, from a 1957 CBC broadcast) of "Urlicht" ("Primal Light"), which was incorporated as next-to-last of the Second (Resurrection) Symphony's five movements, leading without pause into the heaven-storming Finale. Maybe we should hear "Urlicht" again.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection):
iv. Urlicht ("Primal Light")
[German text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn]

O rosebud red!
Man lies in the greatest need.
Man lies in the greatest anguish.
Far rather would I be in heaven.

Then I came to a broad path.
Then a little angel came and wanted to send me away.
But no! I didn't let myself be sent away.

I am from God, I want to return to God.
Dear God will give me a little light,
will light me all the way to eternal blessed life.

Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano; Vienna Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta, cond. Decca, recorded February 1975

Do you begin to hear Mahler's heaven as a place of comfort for people who have had little of it in life? I can't help feeling that the poor child in "Heavenly Life" is just as hungry as his counterpart in "Earthly Life," or maybe even more so -- has he perhaps advanced beyond hope to sheer fantasy as the end nears?

I know that a lot of people consider Mahler's Fourth Symphony one of his "easiest" to get into, right after the relatively straightforward First. It sure wasn't for me. In fact, I think it may have been the hardest of all of them for me to feel I'd gotten inside.

Really, although the running time of the First and Fourth Symphonies is about the same (say, 55 minutes on average), the two could hardly be more dissimilar. One of these days we'll talk more about the First, but for our present purposes, it should be enough to say that it looks and even behaves more or less like a regular symphony -- jumping off from the New World Symphony of his fellow Bohemian, Antonin Dvořák (which we looked at a bit awhile back) -- a danger in conducting Mahler is to miss the much-loved countryside that Dvořák and Mahler loved so. The best corrective is the Mahler of their countryman Rafael Kubelik.

The Fourth Symphony begins with two rather leisurely, charming, even bucolic movements, which in Mahler would normally both be "middle" movements. In fact, the symphony seems to be missing a proper opening movement. And it ends, as we know, with our child's song, "Heavenly Life." In between, almost hiding, is a full-fledged Mahler adagio! In this, the most compact of Mahler's symphonies, what the heck is that doing there? (Shostakovich would later play this game in even more extreme form, building a symphony, his Sixth, out of an opening Adagio followed by a relatively short and perky middle movement and then an even shorter, downright raucous final movement.)

As a matter of fact, "Das himmlische Leben" was the seed of the whole Fourth Symphony. The song setting had done in 1892, long before Mahler began work on the symphony, and indeed before he began work on the Third Symphony, for which it was originally intended as a conclusion. Once he decided to remove it from the Third, and end instead with the haunting Adagio, the task became to imagine a symphony of which "Das himmlische Leben" would be the appropriate conclusion.


Okay, so we have one strand of the DNA of Mahler's symphonies, or at least of Nos. 2-4: the Wunderhorn world. As it happens we have already explored another: the great, enormous symphonic adagio that Mahler inherited from Beethoven and Bruckner. And in fact we've even made a small stab at putting these elements together, when we put the last two movements of the gigantic Third Symphony together: the little chorus-and-alto setting of the Wunderhorn song "Es sungen drei Engel" ("Three Angels Were Singing") leading into the gorgeously expansive Finale.

In the Fourth Symphony, of course, the order is reversed. As noted, sitting there innocently and inconspicuously in the third-movement position is a full-fledged Mahler adagio, followed by the setting of "Das himmlische Leben." So first we need to get up to, er, speed with this beautiful slow movement. Here are two lovely performances, chosen for contrast. Klaus Tennstedt's Mahler was dark and intense, inhabiting what seems to me like a nocturnal world (in effect applying the nickname of the Seventh Symphony, Song of the Night, to all of Mahler's output), but in pacing it was rarely slow. He gets through this movement in about 20½ minutes, compared with Wyn Morris's (from the same recording we sampled above) 25.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 4:
iii. Ruhevoll (Reposeful). Poco adagio.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Klaus Tennstedt, cond. Live performance, Jan. 15, 1977

London Symphony Orchestra, Wyn Morris, cond. Collins, recorded c1988

Now it's time to put our two movements together. I'm sorry I don't have Jascha Horenstein's Mahler Fourth on CD. (I seem instead to have unknowingly double-bought the gorgeous Kletzki performance represented below -- and then knowingly bought it again in a twofer to get Kletzki's lovely recording of Das Lied von der Erde on CD.) But of all people to connect with this (seemingly) genially bucolic symphony, Pierre Boulez seems to me to have found exactly the right wavelength, or perhaps two right wavelengths, because this early-'70s live performance with the BBC Symphony is quite different from the 1998 recording he made with the Cleveland Orchestra as part of his DG Mahler symphony cycle. However, both performances seem to me just to glow.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 4

iii. Ruhevoll (Reposeful)

Philharmonia Orchestra, Paul Kletzki, cond. EMI, recorded April and June 1957

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, cond. Live performance, presumably early 1970s

iv. Finale: Sehr behaglich (Very comfortable)
[see above for English translation of the text]

Emmy Loose, soprano; Philharmonia Orchestra, Paul Kletzki, cond. (see above)

Jan DeGaetani, mezzo-soprano; BBC Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, cond. (see above)


We have no opportunity to say anything more about the first two movements of the Mahler Fourth, but it seems kind of unfair to spend so much time on the last two without giving you a chance to hear them, so here they are:

i. Heiter, bedächtig. Nicht eilen.
(Cheerful, deliberate. Don't rush.)

ii. In gemächlicher Bewegung. Ohne Hast.
(In leisurely tempo. Without haste.)

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Klaus Tennstedt, cond. (see above)


The current list is here.

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At 12:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you KenI!

Just lovely, particularly the twilight zone segway, and I am STILL not through it all yet.

I am going to stop asking for contests and prizes and instead ask you what we OWE YOU for all this work?

don't stop...

At 2:54 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

That's much appreciated, Bil. (And thanks for instigating this week's subject!)

It's a labor of love, and sometimes quite a lot of labor, but it's worth it if there's somebody out there on the receiving end.


At 10:23 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

Wonderful, I DO love that Aria, and really, LIKE Mahler.

Yep, that was me by accident, not that ME, Bil NEVER an anonymousie:)

Thanks KenI! Don't stop...

At 5:40 PM, Blogger Steven said...

Very grateful for this - especially for the chance to hear the old Tennstedt recording. Thank you!


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