Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday Classics: Parting, though not without a struggle -- with "an increasingly calm acceptance of fate"


A symphonic finale in search of an ending

In the first not-quite-six minutes or so of this clip, Lenny B's comments are superimposed over a rehearsal, which gives way to the actual performance at about 5:55. We first saw this clip in the January 2012 post, "At how bad a point did the cell-phone ring heard 'round the world interrupt the NY Phil's Mahler Ninth? Let's complete the symphony." (We also heard Lenny conducting the complete finale from a July 1979 Tanglewood performance with the Boston Symphony. Later we're going to hear the broadest of his recordings of the movement.)

by Ken

Well, when we attacked "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell"), the half-hour sixth and final song of the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth (in a July 2009 Maureen Forrester remembrance post), we pretty much just plunged in (in August 2010 we followed up with the three tenor songs), and I'm afraid that's what we're going to do as well with the other completed work composed after Mahler's diagnosis of terminal heart disease, the Ninth Symphony.

I noted when we listened to Mahler's "most characteristic" and "least loved" symphony, the Seventh (in November -- first the three middle movements, then the outer movements), that the composer would use this basic plan again. In the Seventh it's a pair of enormous outer movements bracketing a core of "other" musics: the two "Night Music"s wrapped around a scherzo. This is very much the plan of the unfinished Tenth Symphony, with a core consisting of a pair of scherzos bracketing the little "Purgatorio" movement (we heard this core of the Tenth later in November) -- with the crucial difference that those gigantic outer movements are now slow rather than normal symphonic fast ones.

That switch, of course, had already been made in the Ninth Symphony (which, as I noted in Friday night's preview, should properly have been the Tenth, if Mahler had had the courage to tempt fate and give Das Lied the dangerous-for-symphony-composers number nine). It's hard to think of words to convey the scale and dimension of the opening Andante commodo and concluding Adago of the Ninth.


Most listeners are likely to agree that the prevailing subject matter of the Mahler Ninth is farewell, the final parting -- as we can surely divine from the clip we've seen again up top, with Leonard Bernstein providing voice-over commentary over the final 10½ minutes of the finale. But even in those majestic outer movements the tone is hardly singlemindedly elegiac, and in those "otherish" middle movements the parting journey covers some very different ground.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D

i. Andante commodo

Nobody was more tuned into tunes than Mahler -- how to imagine them and what to do with them once you do. But does this glorious opening Andante commodo (the first time Mahler began a symphony with a slow movement, but not the last -- the most nearly completed movement of the unfinished Tenth Symphony is that gorgeous Adagio) actually have a tune? It's immensely tuneful, chock full of tune fragments, or perhaps cells -- I hum them a lot. But in listening, consider how Mahler composed this massive movement out of such tiny units of material.

I thought these brief movement descriptions by Terry Barfoot, from thee 1999 EMI CD reissue of Otto Klemperer's 1967 Mahler Ninth, might provide some helpful listening cues.
To quote Alban Berg, the first movement is "permeated with the premonition of death." The song-like theme heard almost immediately proves to be the pervasive factor. Its character is transformed in many powerful presentations, the structure magnificently developed in order to bind together the extremes of desperate intensity deeply felt expressiveness.
Note that Sir John Barbirolli played (and recorded) the Mahler Ninth with Herbert von Karajan's Berlin Philharmonic long before its music director, a latecomer to Mahler. Like his Das Lied, Karajan's Ninth has a certain coolness that somehow doesn't preclude intense involvement. Barbirolli had been conducting Mahler for years, but this recording announced to a lot of surprised music lovers with the strength of his identification with the music. (In our July 2011 Mahler Sixth post, I ran short of ways to enthuse over his 1967 recording.)

Berlin Philharmonic, Sir John Barbirolli, cond. EMI, recorded January 1964

Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded live at the Berlin Festival Weeks, 1982

ii. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers
(In the tempo of a leisurely Ländler)

We heard Bruno Walter rehearsing and then performing this rustic and perhaps sardonic movement in Friday night's preview, when we also heard the Ländler from Mahler's First Symphony.
The second movement is a scherzo, another example of the deliberately grotesque treatment of a dance identity. An Austrian ländler is extensively developed, with episodes alluding to the waltz and the vulgarities of popular tunes, and in the later stages suggestions of peaceful nostalgia also.
At least on records, both Carlo Maria Giulini and Kurt Sanderling gravitated to the dark world of the later Mahler; both made notable recordings of Das Lied, and Sanderling recorded one of the most effective realizations of the Tenth Symphony manuscript materials.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. DG, recorded April 1976

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Sanderling, cond. BBC Radio Classics, broadcast performance from Manchester, July 17, 1982

iii. Rondo-Burleske
The aggressive Rondo-Burleske, with its potent subtitle "very defiant," pushes Mahler's musical language to its limits. The music exists on the very edge of chaos, and when the pandemonium allows a visionary lyrical theme to emerge, it becomes turned into a cynical parody of itself. The closing bars intensify the effect of the whole, in a frankly violent stretto.
As Terry Barfoot's little note suggests, this is a very difficult movement to play, so we turn to two of the most resourceful of Mahler conductors -- though as we hear here, they could hardly be more different in outlook and approach to the music.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded May 1982

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded February 1967

iv. Adagio
The finale has priorities which stand at the opposite extreme. The hymn-like principal theme exudes warmth and belief, and in due course it emerges that this music has developed from the Rondo's visionary theme. But there is more than one dimension, and the tensions which generate the powerfully expressive climaxes confirm that this is a struggle for life itself. Thus the concluding phase represents an increasingly calm acceptance of fate.
For this, probably the most personal music Mahler wrote, while there are lots of recordings we could have tapped, it wasn't hard to settle on the two conductors who may have probed the composer's music more intimately than any others I'm aware of. Again, though, their actual approaches to the music are very different.

Orchestre National de France, Jascha Horenstein, cond. Disques Montaigne, broadcast performance, June 6, 1967

Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), Leonard Bernstein, cond. DG, recorded live, June 1985

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