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Blast from the Past: An Open Letter on Matters Gustav Mahler

An open, but unsent, letter to Fanfare Magazine from 2011 on the subject of Lynn René Bayley and her hyperbolic review of Naxos’ box of Mahler Symphonies for the Fanfare Magazine. A bit of a rant, but I found myself amused by it, still, when I found it just now.

Dear Fanfare Editor,

I have tried, as best I can, to ignore the exacerbating reviews of Lynn René Bayley. I browse ahead in my Fanfare issue, carefully, to find her name (all-too-often). Then I skip the review, because I value my coronary and mental health.

Unfortunately I failed in that precaution when reading the review of Naxos’ Mahler box set. What a travesty, what a befuddling mess.

But rather than succumbing to the unhealthy (and uncouth) tirade that simmers just beneath the surface (peppered with damning blanket statements), I will try to quote-and-comment on some of the more unnerving elements. (I will leave aside her mediocre writing while noting in passing that it’s come a long way from her unadulterated hatchet jobs of yesteryear.)

After a series of platitudes and a highly superfluous “Mahler was not always popular” preamble, we arrive at:

LRB: “Only the two orchestras that Mahler himself had conducted, the Vienna Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic, had anything like a Mahler style in their blood.”

Oh, boy. For starters, what’s that “Mahler style” precisely? A musical gene he transmitted by conducting Beethoven with these bands? The same (“correct”) style LRB claims doesn’t exist, just one paragraph further down? When it comes to performances of Mahler, what did the Vienna Philharmonic have, that the Concertgebouw, for example, didn’t? The VPO performed Mahler Symphonies a whopping 34 times between 1900 and 1920; and an average 18 times per decade (!) until the seventies when things eventually, reluctantly picked up. The Vienna Philharmonic, elusive “Mahler Style” or not, was not a natural Mahler orchestra. The RCO, in comparison, performed Mahler Symphonies 180 times in the first two decades of the last century. And, except for the dark 40s, never less than 73 times per decade. The New York Philharmonic performed Mahler Symphonies a mere six times between 1900 and 1920 and made up for lost opportunities only starting with the 60s (137 performances). The Prague, Munich, and Cologne Orchestras, for example, have more of a Mahler-the-composer tradition than either Vienna or New York.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphonies,
A.Wit, M.Halász/Warsaw PO, Polish NRSO

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.1,
M.Halász/Polish NRSO

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.2,
A.Wit/Polish NRSO

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.8,
A.Wit/Warsaw PO

LRB: “[Mahler’s] symphonies are unique in being able to withstand several different approaches, from fairly swift, taut, and dramatic to slow, alternately relaxed or tense, and brooding. Moreover, I’m pretty sure Mahler himself changed the way he conducted his own symphonies from year to year, depending on his mood at the time.”

What a staggering assortment of hapless fluff, re-hashed clichés, conjecture, and inane opinioneering in just two sentences. And still nothing at all about the collection at hand.

LRB: “This particular set, primarily the work of two Polish conductors, is fascinating in that it gives us Mahler not in a German or Anglo-Saxon vernacular, which is how most of us came to know it (even through Klemperer, Walter, Barb[ir]olli, and Horenstein), but rather through an Eastern European vernacular.”

Oy veh. Horenstein and Barbirolli aside, it might be worth pointing out that Otto Klemperer was from Wrocław, formerly Breslau. That would be in… you’ve guessed it: Poland. The son of Silesian Jews, Bruno Schlesinger, a.k.a. Bruno Walter, learned his trade in Wrocław (Breslau), Bratislava (Pressburg), and Riga. And one of the great European post-War pioneers of Mahler was the Czech Rafael Kubelik. How much more Eastern European do these men have to be for it to count? What is more, Michael Halász isn’t even Polish, but from linguistically and culturally rather distinct Hungary.

LRB: “…[T]his is Mahler with a Polish-Bohemian accent, and as such is probably closer to what the composer himself heard in his mind when writing it.

Aha! A 21st century production of Mahler Symphonies with an allegedly Polish flavor—things Polish not actually being particularly related to Mahler—is more likely what he heard in his mind when writing the music than any or most of what has come before? Including the (wildly varying) interpretations of those who worked with him? Maestro Halász, it seems, is now nudged from being Polish toward being vaguely Bohemian. It’s the right direction, at least, though “Bohemian” is still quite distinct from Hungarian.

LRB goes on to gush about the set and the recorded sound in ways I have trouble comprehending, but taste and experience being subjective matters it wouldn’t be fair to grill her for (dis)liking this or that. In our appreciation of the 8th Symphony under Wit we actually agree; in her assessment of the soloists as “weak” we do not. Unknown, yes, but weak? Well, tastes…

I’d agree that the Wheeler version of the 10th is so interesting that its inclusion is a merit to the Naxos set. To suggest it’s the second best after—of all the many available versions—Wigglesworth’s obscure non-commercial BBC-freebe 10th is just a wee bit bizarre. Peculiarity continues when she lists her grave disappointments at the hands of Messrs. Solti, Zander, Levine, Bernstein, Segerstam, Dohnányi, Thomas, and Tennstedt and their “supposedly top-drawer cycles”.

Peculiar because Zander, Dohnányi, and Levine never (or not yet) recorded complete cycles. And I have yet to meet a person that ever claimed that Segerstam’s hopelessy out-of-print ‘Danish’Mahler cycle on Chandos was even mid-drawer. But it gets stranger, still:

LRB: “…and since several of my first choices are rare and/or out-of-print recordings (such as the Mehta Second, Tennstedt Fifth, and Kubelík Seventh on the out-of-print New York Philharmonic boxed set), as a whole it is certainly first choice as a complete cycle.”

Halász-Wit-Olson is “certainly [the] first choice as a complete cycle”? It’s difficult not to chortle at that statement, especially with that “certainly” added. I wonder if she could find even three Mahlerians to agree with that statement. But again: taste, arguing, and such. Plain wrong, meanwhile, is the idea that Mehta’s Second is out of print; it is currently making its happy and inexpensive rounds on “Decca Legends”. To be had for a tenner, and worth every penny. Tennstedt’s Fifth, apart from perennial availability in his complete Mahler box (EMI, retailing at something between $20 and $50, lest she meant the live version, which is available in the newer box on Warner or individually used and imported]) can still be gotten with relative ease on its most recent installment on EMI double forte. (The Kubelik New York Seventh is tricky to come by, admittedly.)

LRB: “Even at Naxos’s list price, it’s cheaper than any of the cycles I cited in the above paragraph…”

Oh, but it isn’t. Arkiv’s list price is $108.98, the sale price $82.49, Amazon’s official price as of writing this is $71.62. And although getting the set for $60 is a distinct possibility, that makes it more expensive than some of the most venerable sets out there. In fact, it makes it one of the most expensive ones. Chailly’s Mahler (Decca) has a lower list price. Bertini’s Mahler (EMI) is one of the great Mahler-bargains. Bernstein’s New York Cycle, even in the beautiful Carnegie Hall edition, is less expensive at $50 and the DG cycle in its latest issue costs less than $40. Kublik’s Bavarian cycle on DG has come down in price below the $50 mark, ditto imports of Decca’s Eloquence re-issue of Sinopoli’s Mahler. Add to that three anniversary sets from DG and EMI with different conductors… it would be possible to go on, but boring.

Mahler sets should probably be reviewed by someone who has at least some idea of what they are writing about… and someone who doesn’t get tripped up by pesky “facts” quite so often.

Almost sincerely,

Jens F. Laurson


Anonymous said...

In defense to LRB, I think she was referring to the Mehta Mahler 2nd and Tennstedt 5th from the NY Philharmonic live broadcast set, not the VPO (Mehta) or LPO (Tennstedt) recordings.
(BTW, this made me even more curious about the recently-ish released Tennstedt / NDR Mahler 5th on Profil which I hear is the best of all Tennestedt available performances).

jfl said...

I've heard the recentish NDR/Tennstedt, and listened to it up and down in comparison with other recent new or re-issues. This is what I've written down so far:

Tennstedt begins genteel, then notably slow… a step or two after the beautiful trumpet fanfare that are very dance-like, with a nice (still slow) spring… but then it’s just slow, after all. The impression is borne out only partially by the timing, which indicates Tennstedt taking a minute and a half longer than either Darlington or Saraste. Still, despite the laggardly pace, the transition and climaxes are very nicely done… one just has to allow Tennstedt the time to get there. Too bad some sour horns and the (very) occasionally adventurous string section mars the tepidly excellent impression. The Adagietto is longer than I prefer it, but it works very nicely along elegiac lines without becoming drippy… and the Finale, now no longer slow, brings about as rousing a finish as this symphony should have. I reckon that I should have liked to be at this performance, if time travel to May of 1980 were possible, but on record it doesn’t carve itself a niche...

jfl said...

Re: LRB -- perhaps. If that's the case, is it really sensical to compare solely to one of the most difficult to attain sets there are? That's a reviewer's snobbery of a very particular kind. Moreover, I would put good money on low odds against her not even actually having; perhaps not even having heard that set. But that's admittedly conjecture.