Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Classics: Mahler's most characteristically "Mahlerian" symphony is also his least loved, part 2


This is the start of Leonard Bernstein's October 1974 video recording of the Mahler Seventh Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic.

by Ken

In approaching the gigantic opening movement of the Mahler Seventh Symphony (in the Klemperer recording it runs to almost 28 minutes), we cheated. We've already heard our reward once we cross to the other side, in the previous post in this series ("Mahler's most characteristically "Mahlerian" symphony is also his least loved," Nov. 4): the three movements that Mahler imagined first -- the two Nachtmusik (Night Music) movements bracketing a scherzo -- before finding himself at a loss as to what should surround all of them.

By way of reminder, here again is musicologist-critic Mosco Carner (1904-1985) telling the story of how Mahler overcame this creative impasse, from Carner's liner note for the 1968 Klemperer-EMI recording:
From a letter written to his wife five years after the completion of the symphony (1905) we learn that it was while being ferried across a lake in the Tyrol that the movements of the oars suddenly released in him the music or, rather, the rhythm and character of the slow introduction, and that in four weeks the first, third and last movements were finished. (This is an excellent illustration of a fact observed in the psychology of the creative process that a quite trivial event may act as a trigger to make conscious what was once stored deep down in the artist's unconscious.)
And here again are the two performances we heard two weeks ago of just the opening minutes of the opening movement (I've replaced my LP-dubbed Klemperer clip with one from the CD which also runs as far into the introduction as the Solti clip):

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded May 1971

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. 18-28, 1968


Lorin Maazel talks about the difficulty of his path to Mahler, and in particular to the Seventh Symphony -- when he conducted it near the end of his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic (2002-09). A recording of his performance is available via digital download.

In those opening minutes of the Seventh we can hear an element hardly uncommon in Mahler that we hear in most of his works but nowhere in as concentrated form as here. -- with one possible exception: the never-completed Tenth Symphony, to which we jumped ahead in Friday night's out-of-left-field "preview," where we heard that symphony's three middle movements, which seem to me to stand in a clear line of descent from those of the Seventh.

What I hope was clear, even in the skeletal form in which Mahler left all of the Tenth except the opening Adagio, is the noticeable evolution of his musical style, but especially this element of the grotesque, which is made to sound normal. But that tone too traces back to the Seventh. For this reason the Seventh also seems to me the pivotal work in the strong influence Mahler clearly had on Dmitri Shostakovich, even though his music surely wasn't much performed in the Soviet Union in Shostakovich's developing and mid-career years. Access to the Seventh must have been especially problematic, but the imprint seems to me unmistakable.


One of the fascinations of the Mahler Seventh is the wildly different balances different conductors come up with on this issue. The grotesquely distorted "triad" that the tuba sounds at the opening always puts me in mind of an earlier Mahler symphonic opening -- that of his wildest and wooliest work, the Third Symphony.

Before we hear that opening, let's listen to a chunk of the finale of Brahms's First Symphony, which has a long slow introduction that plays with the image of a tune that's finally heard in full form at the start of the main Allegro ma non troppo section of the movement. We're going to pick up at 2:33 of the movement in this performance; in the clip, the great theme is finally stated at 2:15.

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1: 4th movement -- end of introduction and principal theme

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Heinz Rögner, cond. Weitblick, recorded June 9-18, 1980

Now here's the opening of the Mahler Third:

MAHLER: Symphony No. 3: 1st movement -- opening

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Heinz Rögner, cond. Berlin Classics, recorded 1983

Parody? Exaggeration? Neither of the above? You be the judge. Sarcastic, sardonic, eerie, just plan weird -- the Seventh Symphony encompasses all of this and much more, but the music always seems to me to ask to be played not for its weirdness but for its strong communicative intents and exceptional beauty.

i. Langsam (Adagio); Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo

As we did in part 1 with the three middle movements, we're going to start by breaking the outer movements down into bite-size chunks. For the first movement we hear the Vienna Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel, recorded by CBS/Sony Oct. 1-4, 1984. I've included bits of description, mostly from Jack Diether's liner note for Leonard Bernstein's 1965 recording with the New York Philharmonic for Columbia/CBS/Sony. I've also dipped into Mosco Carner's liner note for the 1968 Klemperer-EMI recording.


The slow introduction is in B minor, beginning with a horn call over rising harmonies. Here Mahler calls for an instrument which is not found elsewhere in his own works or in the standard symphonic literature -- a "tenor horn in B flat." This is believed to be the same instrument known in English-speaking countries as the baritone horn, in the same key. Its rich, glowing tone, piercing the initial darkness of heavy string chords, sets the mood of nocturnal atmosphere that colors most of the symphony. -- Jack Diether

Jagged and double-dotted rhythms, chains of trills and a staccato march theme permeate the rest of the somber introduction, which subsequently leads to the Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo. -- J.D.

The main Allegro is in E minor and also begins with a horn theme, but this theme is played by the four regular horns in unison. -- J.D.

The second subject is one of Mahler's great soaring themes for strings, repeatedly pausing on aspiring high notes. It is in C major, the key in which the whole symphony ends. -- J.D.

The development section of this movement includes a beautiful "moonlit" episode introduced with uprushing figures for two harps. -- J.D.

The recapitulation starts with a shortened version of the Adagio introduction.and subjects the expository material to various pointed modifications in a more compact scoring. -- Mosco Carner

The movement concludes in a triumphal march with military drum and piccolo, the final bars being in E major. -- J.D.


We start with Rafael Kubelik's 1970 recording from his DG Mahler cycle with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, a lovely performance, relatively fleet and uncomplicated, perhaps not plumbing the depths, but not misrepresenting the music. (A decade later, when he conducted the piece with the New York Philharmonic -- the performance from which we heard the deliciously luxuriant middle movements in our previous installment -- the first movement took five minutes longer!)

Not much more drawn out, but operating at a way higher intensity level, is Jascha Horenstein's intense 1969 broadcast performance, followed by the substantially more spacious but less frenetic performance by Leif Segerstam.

Finally, nobody I've heard has dug into this movement the way Otto Klemperer did in the 1967 recording from which we've already heard the opening. We know from Peter Heyworth's biography that at the time of Klemperer's final decline he was working seriously on the score of the Mahler Sixth, a piece he had known since its creation, for recording. EMI was eager to make the recording, but it's one of the projects he was never physically able to realize. I would have loved to hear it.
A note on Klaus Tennstedt's Mahler Seventh

I had intended to offer up the first movement from Klaus Tennstedt's 1980 studio recording of the Mahler Seventh, a recording I really loved the last time I listened to it. Unfortunately, I pulled the CD that contains the symphony's first four movements out of the box as part of my "Mahler Seventh Traveling Kit," along with a live performance with the Cleveland Orchestra, and at some point both of those became separated from the kit.

Tennstedt's studio Mahler cycle doesn't seem in much repute among the Mahler Faithful, but I think it's a pretty amazing achievement, and the Seventh in particular seemed to me a brilliantly eerie musical representation of an eerie night landscape. By comparison the later live performance EMI subsequently released -- on the theory that it's only in live performances that we get the real Tennstedt magic -- seems to me sweatier and fairly humdrum, even apart from the dreadful Royal Festival Hall acoustics.

As it happens, the CD that contains Tennstedt's Finale wasn't part of the kit. I had already made an audio file of that movement, which we're going to hear when we get there.
i. Langsam (Adagio); Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik, cond. DG, recorded November 1970

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond. Live performance, Aug. 29, 1969

Royal Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Leif Segerstam, cond. Chandos, recorded Nov. 4-6, 1991

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. 18-28, 1968

The three middle movements

We deal with these pretty intensively in the earlier Mahler Seventh post, but here they are again, first in the relatively straightforward yet warm and playful recording that Václav Neumann made during his years as principal conductor of Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra (when he also recorded the Mahler Symphonies Nos. 5, 6, and 9; later he did a complete cycle with the Czech Philharmonic, and even rerecorded most of the symphonies yet again, though not the Seventh, as far as I know), and also the generally more spacious performance by Giuseppe Sinopoli.

ii. Nachtmusik I: Allegro moderato
iii. [Scherzo] Fliessend, aber nicht schnell (Schattenhaft)

[Flowing, but not fast (Shadowy)]
iv. Nachtmusik II: Andante amoroso

Gewandhaus Orchestra (Leipzig), Václav Neumann, cond. Deutsche Schallplatten-Philips-Berlin Classics, recorded May 1968

Philharmonia Orchestra, Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. DG, recorded May 1992

v. Rondo-Finale: Allegro ordinario

In the days not long past, when Mahler was widely misunderstood and barely tolerated by the musical press, this Rondo was frequently held up as the ne plus ultra of Mahlerian outrageousness. Today we can begin to recognize it as one of his most original triumphs. It is not the weakest of his finales: it is simply the most Classical -- or anti-Classical if you prefer -- in the sense that a concluding romp by Haydn might be called anti-Classical for seeming to thumb its nose at every formal tradition while still "observing" them all. -- Jack Diether
Once I decided that our "breakdown" performances of the first and fifth movements were going to be the 1984 Maazel and 1985 Leonard Bernstein recordings, it was easy to slot them in. When it comes to Mahler, Lenny has to be our closer. Nobody has played these works with a keener sense of where they're headed and wind up. This is his final recording of the Seventh, the live remake with the New York Philharmonic from Nov.-Dec. 1985.
This C major Finale suggests a vivacious kind of parody on the rondo form itself, just as the first movement of the Fourth Symphony suggests a parody of the Classical sonata form. It begins with a lusty fanfare led off not by the brass, but by the timpani ("con bravura"), and culminates in a joyous pealing of bells against the full orchestra. This brilliant conclusion to all the nocturnal music that preceded it can perhaps best be understood by recalling the titles Mahler originally gave the movements of his Third Symphony. There, a movement, with contralto, entitled "What Night Tells Me" was followed by one entitled "What the Morning Bells Tell Me," in which boys' voices joyfully imitated the actual sound of bells. Juxtapositions of this sort are the essence of Mahler's art. -- Jack Diether


After the opening fanfare, the trumpets and horns play a festive theme (Allegro ordinario) related to the main theme of the first movement. Other ritornello themes follow, leading up to a big C major chord which immediately gives way to a long-held A flat major chord in the woodwinds, followed by a pause. -- J.D.

The A flat chord ushers in the first of a succession of fantastic episodes in widely differing keys and "characteristic" moods. A variety of semi-popular and operetta-like strains are humorously bandied about in these episodes, sometimes leading back into the ritornello amidst much clamoring. -- J.D.

[Flutes and piccolos come to the fore, then the brasses, as the assorted principal themes crowd one another.]

[A full-orchestra outburst with bells.]
In the end all this light-heartedness is combined with the sterner first-movement theme in its original form. -- J.D.


The Gewandhaus Kapellmeister after Václav Neumann (1964-68) was Kurt Masur, who remained in the post for some 26 years (1970-96), and we're going to hear his unfussy but rousing Finale. (I'm feeling sentimental about Maestro Masur after hearing one of the Brahms concerts he just conducted on his recent return to the New York Philharmonic, which he served so well as music director, under difficult conditions, from 1991 to 2002.) Then we hear the more Technicolor-ish performance by Riccardo Chailly, followed by the significantly larger-scaled ones by Tennstedt and Klemperer, which intriguingly time out identically but are for sure very different.

v. Rondo-Finale: Allegro ordinario

Gewandhaus Orchestra (Leipzig), Kurt Masur, cond. Deutsche Schallplatten-Berlin Classics, recorded September 1982

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, cond. Decca, recorded April 1994

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Klaus Tennstedt, cond. EMI, recorded Oct. 20-22, 1980

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. 18-28, 1968


At 2:44 PM, Blogger trev said...

This symphony is one of my favorites now. I happened to catch it on TV with Boulez conducting the NY Phil. Not my favorite conductor but I enjoy seeing the orchestra too.
I have come to believe that the first movement is one of the greatest Mahler ever composed. A few minutes in, time seems to stop with the slow violin theme building into a great climax. It is odd how this is his least performed symphonies, but sometimes that is what happens with great music.
To correct that famous critic at the beginning of the post, the symphony begins in G# minor, not b minor.

At 3:41 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks for sharing that, Trev. My feeling is that once you "get" the Mahler Seventh (and I was intrigued to see Maestro Maazel owning that it had been a struggle for him), it's hard not to love that puppy!

As for the opening key of the symphony, yes, there are G-sharps in those chords, but that's just Mahler playing. The chords are basically B-D-F#, which looks to me clearly B minor -- just like the key signature!



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