Sunday, January 03, 2010

Sunday Classics: Adagio -- moving slowly from Beethoven through Bruckner to Mahler


The Bruckner Seventh Symphony was a sort of "calling card" piece for Eugen Jochum. I've never heard anyone build the great climax of the Adagio as majestically as he did. Here, at 83, he conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra, with which his relationship dated back some 50 years, on tour in Osaka in September 1986. (This is part 1 of the Adagio. Part 2 is here, and part 3 here.) I don't believe this performance has been issued commercially, which is a shame, since it appears to exist in top-quality video and audio.

by Ken

During our "Very Tchaikovsky Christmas" I made the impudent suggestion that Gustav Mahler had the plan of Tchaikovsky's last symphony, the Pathétique, with its slow, expressive finale, somewhere in his head when it came to figuring out how to conclude the symphony that was not only his longest to date but the longest he would ever write, the Third, which he concluded with a haunting slow movement that in the slowest performances stretches close to the half-hour mark.

I got this really nutty idea that we could use that as a springboard to sort of sneak up on the Mahler Third, which I think remains, with the Seventh, the least welcoming of Mahler's symphonies for newcomers, and even for a lot of older-timers. Well, by golly, we're going to do it! Not quite the utterly nutty way I first envisaged, but we're going to wind up at that very finale. And we're going to do it by following Mahler's gaze backward, and the point to which it takes us is the music we heard in last night's Sunday Classics preview, the Funeral March of Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica.

Actually, we should probably go back a bit further still, to Beethoven's first two symphonies, which are modest but wonderful works of freshness and originality, but you wouldn't call either a pathbreaker. The third, the Eroica, made up for it.

Since it's slow movements we're going to be talking about, it's the slow movements of the first two Beethoven symphonies we should hear first. So here they are. (Often I try to introduce variety in the performance choices, but in this case I thought it would he helpful to hear the same performers in these three Beethoven symphonies. I've chosen the too-little-known cycle by the Welsh conductor Wyn Morris -- a notable Mahler conductor, by the way.)

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21:
ii. Andante cantabile con moto

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36:
ii. Larghetto

London Symphony Orchestra, Wyn Morris, cond. LSO-Carlton Classics, recorded May 9-10, 1988

The Andante cantabile of the First Symphony could fit comfortably in a Mozart sympony, but already in the Second Symphony we can hear the slow movement slowing and growing; the Larghetto here passes the 12-minute mark. Still, nobody had ever heard anything quite like the Eroica Symphony. Suddenly in Beethoven's imagination the symphony more or less doubled in size and scope, and in emotional stakes as well. Haydn could fit an entire string quartet -- and in fact a whole symphony, in his earlier years -- in the running time of the mighty and massive first two movements, a double-size "sonata form" first movement, followed by the Funeral March that we heard last night, as performed on a special occasion (about which more in a moment).

I suppose everyone knows the story: that while this ground-changing symphony was taking shape in Beethoven's head, and on paper, the "hero" he had in mind was Napoleon, the heir to the French Revolution whom he thought of as righting its wrongs, as a liberator, as the man who would free Europe from its socially calcified Old Order. And then, the story goes, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France, and the disillusioned Beethoven ripped out the title page of the new symphony, bearing a dedication to him.

I suspect that a lot of the young people who found themselves inspired by a politician for the first time in candidate Barack Obama will understand some of what Beethoven felt at that unfortunate moment. It's not that in life there are no heroes, but more that genuine heroism doesn't come as easily as we wish, and hardly ever on demand. And Beethoven's Eroica Symphony sets the bar high. It remains, we might say, a Heroic Symphony in search of a hero.


The Eroica as a whole, and the Funeral March in particular, remains perhaps the most profound musical tribute that can be paid to a departed musical hero. The performance of the Funeral March we heard last night took place, as I noted, on February 3, 1957. It's part of a performance of the complete Eroica given in memory of Arturo Toscanini, who died January 16, a couple of months and change shy of his 90th birthday. The orchestra was Toscanini's old NBC Symphony, reorganized as the Symphony of the Air following NBC's withdrawal of support upon Toscanini's retirement. The conductor was Bruno Walter, who had been a frequent guest conductor of the NBC Symphony, and was himself already an octogenarian. (Walter would make remarkably full professional use, especially in the recording studio, of the five years he had left to live.)

In Milan, Victor de Sabata (1892-1967), the greatest of the immediate post-Toscanini generation of Italian conductors, who had been forced into retirement by ill health, emerged from it the day of Toscanini's funeral to conduct the Funeral March of the Eroica at La Scala followed by a performance of the Verdi Requiem in Milan Cathedral.

Just as a check, before we return to the Funeral March of the Eroica, perhaps we should listen to Beethoven's second-most-famous funeral march.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat major, Op. 26:
iii. Marcia funebre sulla morte d'un Eroe (Funeral March on the death of a Hero)

Claude Frank, piano. RCA/Music & Arts, recorded 1990

A gorgeous movement, of course, but no, Beethoven doesn't yet seem to have been hearing in the funeral march form the possibilities he did when he came to the Eroica. It's easy to hear, on the simplest level, how Beethoven expands the form of the symphonic slow movement: His Funeral March keeps finding new contrasting material to commemorate the hero -- at 1:09 in the Wyn Morris performance (switching briefly to the major), at 4:00, and memorably, after a deceptive piece of misdirection at 4:48, now gloriously in the major. Of course there's a lot more to how this movement is constructed, but the basic lines are easy enough to follow.

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 (Eroica):
ii. Marcia funebre (Adagio assai)

London Symphony Orchestra, Wyn Morris, cond. LSO-Carlton Classics, recorded Feb. 8 and 10, 1988

Even in Beethoven's mind, the Funeral March of the Eroica wasn't any sort of "model" for a symphonic slow movement. It was a "prototype" of sorts, however, and he returned to it once more in his symphonies -- in the Ninth, of course, and the great symphonic Adagios of Bruckner and Mahler seem to me to trace directly back to the slow movements of Beethoven's Eroica and Ninth. But let's pause briefly to hear one of the in-between slow movements, that of the Seventh. With its Allegretto tempo marking, I'm not sure it even qualifies as a slow movement. But in its eloquent tunefulness and with its grand rhetorical buildup, I think it bears on our quest -- climax-building would be a basic Brucknerian art. And since it's grand rhetoric we're listening for, let's listen to that master orchestral rhetorician, Leopold Stokowski.

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92:
ii. Allegretto

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, cond. Decca, recorded June 16, 1975

Moving on finally to the Adagio of the Ninth, we are now in the realm of pure musical meditation and speculation -- there's no longer any excuse for extended deliberation of a funeral march. The three other movements of the Ninth all make more immediate claims on the attention, in particular the great choral finale, of course. But for me at least, over the years the beating heart of the piece has proved to be the Adagio. (Note that in a symphony that's so determinedly minor-key, the Adagio of the Ninth is resolutely major-key.)

There's a reason why we're going to hear two performances. "Adagio molto" sounds like a pretty darned slow tempo, and with the general broadening of tempos in the 20th century performances could stretch to quite angelic lengths, like Carlo Maria Giulini's 18½ minutes below. However, scholars have become increasingly convinced that through a simple misreading we have for close to two centuries been playing and hearing the Adagio of the Ninth at something like twice as slow a tempo as Beethoven intended.

That's how David Zinman, in our second performance, working from the new critical edition of the Beethoven symphonies, is able to zip through the Adagio in not much more than 11 minutes. There's no question in my mind which kind of performance is more effective, and while tempos in the 19th century were likely quicker than Giulini's, it's still in this form that the Adagio ignited the imagination of music lovers including Bruckner and Mahler. Nevertheless, I credit Zinman, unlike other conductors I've heard do a doubled-tempo Adagio, with enabling the music to make something like its normal effect. (I could have plunked in a performance that seems to me to trivialize the music, but I hate to waste your time or mine with bad performances.)

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125:
iii. Adagio molto e cantabile (Very slow and songful)


Berlin Philharmonic, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. DG, recorded Feb. 1989 and Feb. 1990

Tonhalle Orchestra (Zürich), David Zinman, cond. Arte Nova, recorded Dec. 12 and 14, 1998

ON TO BRUCKNER (1824-1896)

The example of Beethoven's two monumental symphonic Adagios remained an invitation pretty much without takers, until Anton Bruckner came along. Bruckner is for me one of the more complex cases, and now that we've broken the ice we can come back to him, but as long as we're approaching him through the medium of the Adagio, we find him in his element. There's no question in my mind that the monumental Adagios of the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies are his most memorable achievements. (An early LP issue of Eugen Jochum's recording of the Bruckner Eighth with the Hamburg State Philharmonic spread the symphony over five sides, with the half-hour Adagio occupying two by itself!)

I thought of easing into the great Brucknerian Adagios by opting for the beautiful slow movement of the Fourth Symphony, but if it's full-blown Adagio we're going for, then why pussyfoot? The mighty Adagio of the Seventh, which we sampled above, strikes me as a fraternal twin to the symphony's opening Allegro, both in scale and even in content. There is a lot of repetition and seeming repetition in Bruckner, and a lot of building and unbuilding, but even for Bruckner the climax-builder, the climax to which the Adagio of the Seventh Symphony builds is, or at least can be, one of the colossal moments in all of music.

BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 7 in E:
ii. Adagio; Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam
(Adagio; Very solemn and very slow)

Staatskapelle Dresden, Herbert Blomstedt, cond. Denon-Deutsche Schallplatten coproduction, recorded June 30-July 3, 1980


Again, it might have occurred to Mahler independently to conceive symphonies on the massive scale he did, but he didn't have to: The model of the pious, innocent Bruckner was there before him. It's inevitable that the two composers are linked, and they certainly have things in common -- like a predilection for a grand adagio. But I think you'll hear pretty quickly just how different they are: Bruckner the sublime cosmic musical architect, Mahler the epic poet of the human and subjective.

Which brings us (at last!) to the sixth and final movement of Mahler's Third Symphony. We skip blithely over the 70-odd (sometimes very odd) minutes of the first five movements, including the mammoth (some 35-minute) first movement. That's the movement where Mahler's disciple Bruno Walter said he was sure the Devil had gotten in somewhere, causing him not to perform the symphony. Let's call the last movement roughly 20-27 minutes.

For the raw emotion of this movement, this is clearly Leonard Bernstein territory, and he had a close relationship with this symphony. By quirks of circumstance, the Third, then still little-performed, was one of the first Mahler symphonies he recorded, in 1961, and it's amazing how well that recording holds up. A quarter-century later, when he rerecorded the Third for his final Mahler symphony cycle, for DG, it was his choice, despite the high cost, to do it (and the Resurrection, and the Seventh as well) with his old orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. (The never-made rerecording of the monumental Eighth Symphony was to have been done in New York as well.) I wasn't all that crazy at first about the later Bernstein-NYP Third, and the Resurrection even less so, but they've grown on me, and I've come to really love the breadth and intensity of the later Third.

The performance is going to get chopped up a bit by all the track points DG inserted on the CD (where of course you don't hear them). I thought this might actually be helpful to those less familiar with the piece, since it breaks the movement down a bit. Afterward, we'll hear the whole movement again, straight through.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 in D minor:
vi: Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden
(Slow. Reposeful. Feelingly)

-- Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden (Slow. Reposeful. Feelingly)
-- Nicht langer so breit (No longer so broad)
-- Tempo I. Ruhevoll (Tempo I. Reposeful)
-- Nicht langer so breit (No longer so broad)
-- Tempo I
-- Langsam. Tempo I (Slow. Tempo I)

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. DG, recorded live November 1987
[UPDATE: For some reason, it appears to be necessary to advance this movement manually from track to track. I haven't encountered this before, and have no idea why this is. But wouldn't you know it would happen with track changes that occur within a single continuous movement? Well, that'll stop you from rushing (ha ha!) your way through the performance!]

Believe it or not (I had to reencounter the performance on CD to believe it myself), Zubin Mehta made a really fine recording of the Mahler Third his first time out, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (He also recorded a really fine Resurrection, with the Vienna Philharmonic, and for that matter a really powerful Bruckner Ninth as well. This was music, Mehta has explained, that he gravitated to during his student years in Vienna.) Strangely, as he has kept recording the Mahler Third, the performances have become less and less persuasive.

In this first one, Mehta also had the advantage of the great Maureen Forrester as his alto soloist. The alto has the fourth movement to herself, a setting of Nietzsche's "O Man, beware" (from Thus Spake Zarathustra), and then in the fifth movement she's joined by a boys' choir representing a choir of angels singing "Bimm-bamm, bimm-bamm" (for a friend of mine, just the sound of the boys singing "Bimm-bamm" makes this one of his favorite Mahler movements) while a women's chorus launches a folklike song about three angels singing a sweet song as the Lord Jesus sits down to eat with his disciples.

I mention all of this because I thought that, rather than just hearing the finale again straight through, we might back up one movement and hear it with its proper lead-in, "Es sungen drei Engel."

MAHLER: Symphony No. 3 in D minor:
v. "Es sungen drei Engel"
vi. Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden

Maureen Forrester, contralto; California Boys' Choir, women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta, cond. Decca, recorded 1978
"Es sungen drei Engel"

[The text is from that remarkable collection of folk poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), which provided Mahler with a seemingly inexhaustible resource, and which imbues his first four symphonies. Wikipedia has side-by-side German text and English translation.]

Three angels sang a sweet song,
with blessed joy it rang in heaven.
They shouted too for joy
that Peter was free from sin!

And as Lord Jesus sat at the table
with his twelve disciples and ate the evening meal,
Lord Jesus said: "Why do you stand here?
When I look at you, you are weeping!"

"And should I not weep, kind God?
I have violated the ten commandments!
I wander and weep bitterly!
O come and take pity on me!"

"If you have violated the ten commandments,
then fall on your knees and pray to God!
Love only God for all time!
So will you gain heavenly joy."

The heavenly joy is a blessed city,
the heavenly joy that has no end!
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.

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