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28.1.08

Gustav Mahler in Washington

Mahler is not an easy composer to love, much less understand. Few neophyte listeners immediately take to Mahler’s sound-world – somewhere between the anxiety-driven and the sheer gargantuan, un-deliberately meandering – and a good number never warm up to his music entirely. But those who get bitten by the Mahler bug fall hard for the Austrian’s symphonies and orchestral songs. And since Mahler is no longer anathema to the serious classical music lover as he was until roughly the early 60’s (and until later, still, in places like Vienna), more and more people fall victim to “Mahleria” (Prokofiev). Mahler, like very few other composers, has a tendency to create obsession among his ‘followers’. That obsession has rarely been served better than in the first decade of the 21st century. Mahler performances become more and more common even outside the traditional Mahler-centers New York and Amsterdam.

The Washington Mahlerians are well served again this month. From January 31st until Februay 2nd, the National Symphony Orchestra will present one of its most promising and most ambitious programs with Mahler's imposing Sixth Symphony and the Kindertotenlieder with none less than the great Mahler interpreter Thomas Hampson. It's a must-hear event - followed by another must-hear event, presented by WPAS the following day, February 3rd. That's when Mariss Jansons, by any account one of the very finest conductors of our day, presents one of his two top orchestras, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. There is no orchestra more steeped in the Mahler tradition than the Concertgebouw, who have played Mahler symphonies well over eleven-hundred times (!) in the last century. You were lucky if you caught their concert in DC two years ago, and you'll likely be lucky to hear them perform Mahler's Fifth Symphony coming Sunday at 3PM. For good measure they will also throw in a little Richard Strauss.

The Fifth Symphony is popular enough because of the "Death in Venice" and Bobby Kennedy-Funeral playtime. Only Symphonies Four and One are played more regularly. It seems to need little introduction or 'help' to appreciate. The Sixth has a tougher time - and is, together with the rather strange Seventh and the logistics-challenged Eight, the least played of Mahler's symphonies. It is dark, brooding, unrelenting, and ends on a note of despair. Cheerful it is not - but it is one of the most impressive symphonies composed and potentially one of the most impressive experiences in the concert hall.

The Sixth Symphony is often mentioned to be Mahler’s most classical, invariably followed by the qualification: “If only in structure”. It’s an important qualification, because although in the sonata-form of the classical symphony (replete with repeats, Allegro first movement, inner slow and Scherzo- movement and an Allegro moderato – Allegro energico Finale), the symphony has nothing else in common with the classical predecessors. For one, its individual movements are as long or longer than any one of Haydn’s complete symphonies. The musical language is Mahler at his most romantic, too. His symphonies are generally not of the happy, cheery kind – but at least they occasionally end on a note (or the hope) of optimism. Not so the Sixth. It’s brutal and remorseless – and while it can be tamed and sound beautiful, I find the most appropriate way to perform this symphony is by riding the beast as hard as possible; foam at the mouth, wide-eyed, driven to the brink of the abyss.

There are two choices to be made in the performance of this work and they are, among Mahler-geeks, perennially controversial: Is the Scherzo to be taken before the Andante (the order it was composed in) or the Andante before the Scherzo (as Mahler always had it performed; presumably because the criticism that the Scherzo and the first movement were too similar, struck a chord with him)? And are all three hammer-blows that Mahler originally composed to be included, or is the symphony to be played in the version where Mahler - possibly out of superstition - removed the last one? (The "Hammer-blows" are three particularly crushing thumps in the last movement for which Mahler envisioned a specifically constructed instrument; conductors variously use large timpani, wooden crates, or specially constructed mallets for this.)

It’s a tedious argument, usually, and suffice it to say that every outstanding performance allows you to neglect the matter, even if you do have set preferences. Mine, incidentally, favor Scherzo-first and three hammer-blows. I am inclined to separate between Mahler “the composer” and Mahler “the conductor” who was willing to engage in any compromise to get his works performed, including moving the Scherzo behind the Andante, even though the harmonic progression could be argued to suggest the order of Scherzo-Andante. The latest decision of the International Mahler Society reverses its course and now places the slow movement before the Scherzo with an air of unassailable certainty.

All that need not be on your mind when you listen to the NSO's performance - or, if you can't attend, a good recording of it. The point is rather to experience the hair-raising brutality and dystopia and the flurry of musical ideas and brilliance. Next week I will see to write about some of particularly outstanding recordings of the Fifth and especially Sixth Symphony to aid (or perhaps make more difficult) the decision which of the many recordings to own.