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The Maestra Begins: Mahler and Adams

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Mahler 5, Berlin Philharmonic, S. Rattle
(November 5, 2002)

Online Score:
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5
Later this week, Marin Alsop will officially become the first woman to take the helm of a major American orchestra, when she officially becomes music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. A noted champion of contemporary music, particularly by American composers, Maestra Alsop has come into her new job with a full head of steam, putting together a more exciting program of concerts for this season than we have seen from either of the Washington-Baltimore area's major orchestras in years. On September 27 at Strathmore and September 28 at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore (also September 29 and 30), she will lead the BSO in a program that combines Fearful Symmetries by John Adams with Mahler's Fifth Symphony. Those who attend one of her four opening weekend appearances will be witnessing history in the making.

Mahler 5 was reviewed last by Ionarts this summer, in a performance in Florence by Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin, and Jens heard it played by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2004. A recent addition to the bewildering host of recordings of Mahler 5 is Simon Rattle's live recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, made five years ago this month, in 2002. Jens has already lumped Rattle's live Mahler 8 with its famous Solti counterpart, and this Mahler 5 has a lot of Solti in it, too. Most of that similarity is in the choice of tempi, and Rattle's "Live Five" times out with an eerie closeness to Solti's. By contrast to the forthright Solti, Rattle tends to favor the arch understatement of the softer passages, which makes for some enjoyable subtleties in this reading. It has not become a favorite version for multiple and regular listening.

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Mahler 5, Tonhalle Orchester Zurich, G. Solti
(remastered September 3, 2007)
Mahler's fifth symphony was a signature piece for Sir Georg Solti, and he recorded it twice with the Chicago Symphony, once in the studio and once live. While there is some beautiful playing on this remastered disc, with the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich, the allure of this live recording is that Solti made it only a few weeks before his death in 1997. This driven, rough-and-ready recording serves as a kind of epitaph, released to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Solti's passing. The reading of the Scherzo has many interesting ideas, but the execution does not always represent those ideas as well as it could. Sadly, this is true of many sections of this performance, which comes off as close to the surface, gut-wrenching, and honest, if hardly finished and sometimes with epic lack of polish. For Solti fans or anyone moved by the thought of Solti conducting the Adagietto shortly before he was indeed lost to the world, this could be compelling, if not essential, listening.

Movement Timings, Mahler 5

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Mahler 5, Wiener Philharmoniker, L. Bernstein
(remastered February 7, 2007)
Count on Bernstein for the most dramatic rendition of this score, in which he exploits the solid solo playing and monolithic granite block sound of the Vienna Philharmonic to produce a vivid, almost Hollywood film music rendition of Mahler 5. It's a mind-blowing game of contrasts, with rubato aplenty and every phrase and section mined for its own significance (especially in the funeral march), sometimes to the detriment of the overall sweep of each movement. Occasionally, too, not all sections of the orchestra are with Bernstein in each of his idiosyncratic expansions or compressions of tempo. The Adagietto is slowed almost excruciatingly, but Bernstein chooses a conclusion that seems at odds with the source of this movement, Mahler's own song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. One gets the wistful sense of the text through much of the movement, but the ending, treating that final crescendo as a roar up to a full-throated howl, seems to say not so much "I am lost to the world" as "Holy shit! I'm dying here!" For all its peculiarities, this recording is always full of surprises. Certainly, at $8.97 right now at Amazon, this is a good time to add this disc to your collection if you do not already own it.

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John Adams, Fearful Symmetries and The Wound-Dresser, Orchestra of St. Luke's, John Adams
(October 20, 1989)
In his notes on Fearful Symmetries, John Adams writes that he conceived this piece while at the American Academy in Rome, shortly after the premiere of his opera Nixon in China. The title is taken from a line in William Blake's poem The Tiger, from Songs of Innocence and Experience. Apparently not inspired by the possible mystical meanings of that line -- how exactly would one frame a tiger's fearful symmetry, anyway? -- Adams created music that is, in his words, "almost maddeningly symmetrical." Divided into fastidiously regular phrases, the music is characterized by "blazingly obvious harmonic changes and an insistent chugging pulse." The style is common enough in the Adams canon that the composer himself labels it "traveling music," intended to evoke the motion of a long voyage. Adams admits that the landscape whizzing by is not countryside but an urban scene, and a large city on a grid is another example of fearful symmetry.

My guess is that to make this work share the stage with a monumental piece like Mahler 5 will set up an unfavorable comparison, to say the least. There are some passages in Mahler 5 that have superficial similarities with the bubbling sound of minimalism, for example, in the bustling sections of the scherzo. The goal of the program is surely to make us hear more sounds in common.


Anonymous said...

So is there an Official Ionarts Bestest Ever Mahler 5 Recording or what? I rely on you all for comprehensive information about long late Romantic German symphonies that I feel like I should be fascinated by but am not. Please don't leave me hanging!

Charles T. Downey said...

The Bernstein recording listed here is my current favorite, but ask me next week... you know. Jens has recommended Barbirolli with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, which is highly regarded and excellent, too.

Anonymous said...

Thanx. I had picked up the Rattle at a used CD store and was trying to get to know the symphony through that ("Hi. How ya doin'? Nice orchestration you got there"), but wasn't making any headway. Like Smokey Robinson, if that don't do, I'll try something new.

jfl said...

I am very surprised to read here (as well as in various, ever unsubstantiated, parenthetical references on the internet) that the 4th movement of the 5th Symphony of Mahler is based on the Rueckert Song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”.

Despite superficial similarity, this does not strike as convincing or sound. Do you have some information that would indicate such a close relationship? One that would negate the more obvious differences?

If we accept that the Adagietto is _not_ a lamento (the Trauermarsch in this symphony is tellingly NOT the 4th movement!!), as it has been made out to be by many conductors since the Mahler revival of Bernstein & Co., but take at word that the Adagietto is a love-letter to Alma Mahler, it is not apathy, otherworldliness, or withdrawal having become musically manifest, it is passionate, erotic, and exuberant. Rueckert-Lied style as is present aside... it’s quite the opposite in character from “Ich bin der Welt...” (Which in turn has a good deal of kinship with the Andante from the 4th)... and therefore not likely “based” on that particular lied.

Stephen E. Hefling points out (including the close relation to Tristan & Isolde), more eloquently, in the forthcoming “Song and Symphony (II). From Wunderhorn to Rückert and the Middle-Period Symphonies: Vocal and Instrumental Works for a New Century - The Cambridge Companion to Mahler”:

Only once did Mahler perform the Fifth’s Adagietto apart from the entire symphony.i But this quietly ecstatic interlude has become Mahler’s best-known music, largely for the wrong reasons. Since the 1960s Mahler revival the Adagietto is usually treated as an elegy (most famously by Leonard Bernstein at the funeral of Robert (Bobby) Kennedy); some renditions take fourteen minutes. But Mahler performed it in seven to nine minutes, as did his trusted colleagues Bruno Walter and Willem Mengelberg. And Mengelberg reveals the reason why in an annotation on his conducting score: ‘N. B. This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love to Alma! Instead of a letter he sent it to her in manuscript…. (both of them told me this!) W. M.’ It is, then, no threnody, but a wordless love song in Mahler’s Rückert-lied style, yet more passionate in utterance.

P.S. As per favorite M5: Yes, there is. Neither Barbirolli nor Rattle, though.

jfl said...

pps: when did I recommend barbirolli's Sugar-5th??? I must have been very young.

Charles T. Downey said...

Jens, as always, thanks for the comments. In your 2004 review of the Phila. Orch. playing Mahler 5, you included a link to the Barbirolli recording. So, it's not really a full recommendation, I suppose. In any case, you are now of a different mind.

To answer your other question, while it is going too far to claim that the Adagietto is merely a transcription of the Rückert song, an impression I hope I did not give, there is certainly more than a "superficial similarity." That does not mean that the words of the Rückert poem *must* inform our understanding of what Mahler intended for the Adagietto, of course, but it makes it harder to ignore their significance.

In any case, I agree that the Adagietto is not an elegy or funeral piece, even if it does strike me as being principally about separation from the world. As for the possible connection with Alma, here is how Henry-Louis de La Grange put it in his comments on the Adagietto:

The mood is one of gentle meditation, as in the Lied Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen which is so close in thematic content. Should this little movement be taken as another one of Mahler's messages of love for Alma, as Willem Mengelberg has claimed? The testimony of a conductor who was Mahler's close friend and devoted admirer cannot be easily dismissed, yet one wonders why Alma who, in later life, took pride in her 'trophies', in the declarations of love she had received from the four great men in her life, never mentioned the Adagietto among them.

If she (and Mahler) confided that to Mengelberg, she did not confirm it elsewhere, although she had many opportunities to include it among her known statements about her various loves. Far more salient in my mind is Hefling's assertion that Mahler himself performed the Adagietto in 7 to 9 minutes. Seven minutes? Really? Are there any recordings that have that compact a reading of the Adagietto?

As I wrote in the post, the Adagietto is my least favorite movement in the Bernstein recording. I was actually very pleased by Barenboim's reading in Florence this summer, which was not brisk but eschewed excessive rubato. Even so, I doubt that it was as short as 7 minutes.

I look forward to hearing more about your opinions on recordings of Mahler 5.

Anonymous said...

Jens, you wish to be playing Mahler not just your very successful solo career and thank god I can do something you aren't now. You are a treasure, a richness waiting to interpret Mahler and I hope if you ever get to I will be there. Actually I wait for the chance to play Mahler with you.You would really push me to play even better! Eras teas us!

Christophero Doodlaie

jfl said...

There are piano rolls of Mahler's Adagietto (him playing) and there have been timings of the performances that people like Zander and Kaplan have tracked down. Hence the 7-9 minutes.

In 2004, I *was* young. :-)

And sugar though there is, it's still a fine recording. In my Mahler overview (still in the works) it does get mention.

1. Chailly, 2. Abbado (Berlin), 3. Barshai, 4. Barbirolli

Also: Levi/Telarc and, if it can be found, Kubelik/DG.

More about that later.