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Mahler & Beethoven/Mahler

Mahler: Kindertotenlieder

Beethoven: Symphony 9 in D minor (London première of Mahler’s “Retuschen” version)

Matthias Goerne (baritone), Lisa Milne (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo soprano), Peter Auty (tenor), Peter Rose (bass), London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Neeme Järvi

Royal Festival Hall, London, 4 February 2009

 Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder are suffused with entangled images of light and dark: despairing night and the awakening morning sun; the “dark flames” of a child’s eyes; candlelight in a dark threshold; a fearsome storm and the refuge of home and mother. They are a perfect vehicle for Matthias Goerne’s rich vocal gifts and intelligent emotional expressiveness. Mahler chose five of more than 400 poems that were written by Friedrich Rückert as a response to the death in rapid succession of two of his infant children. They are not of the highest literary quality but Mahler melds them so skilfully with small varying “chamber orchestra” forces (a pioneering work in this respect) drawn from a fairly large ensemble that the emotional impact is high. Only the fifth song uses the orchestra at its fullest. However, in this performance Neeme Järvi and the LPO seemed to lack ultimate rapport with and support for the singer. To Goerne’s credit, his qualities are such that he soared above these inadequacies – but we can hear even better from him with sounder underpinnings. In the first song, the sun rises not joyfully but unforgivingly for Goerne after a night of misfortune in which the “Nacht” is drawn out in long tearless sorrow. The consolation is limited – this is pantheist “things come back in different forms” territory, not Christan resurrection. So Goerne’s “ew’ge Licht” is indeed drawn out for what really does sound like eternity.There were innumerable examples of Goerne’s subtle expressiveness. In the third song the dark threshold where the child appears with her mother by candlelight is recalled in grief. A threshold to what? How durable is a guttering candle flame? – and a life? “Zu schnel erloschner Freudenschein!”In the fifth song, Mahler’s evocation of the storm is truly storm-like but sinister and dark rather than storm-noisy. Goerne’s anger at his loss and his powerlessness as much as his “mere” anguish outweighs the anger of the storm – “Ich durfte nichts dazu sagen!” The phrase repeats later in the song but is taken to heart and the mood is transformed. Goerne switches seamlessly: storm and senseless guilt becomes calming lullaby. Even rough weather is sung about gently – something from which the children have been preserved – “Sie ruh’n als wie in der Mutter Haus”. It’s time for a Goerne recording of Kindertotenlieder. When will it come?

As a conductor Gustav Mahler was an avid exponent of Beethoven’s orchestral and operatic works. His Retuschen (‘retouched’) versions of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony were prepared for several performances of his own, the first in Hamburg in 1895; the last in New York in 1910.But this was a London première – in two senses: the city’s first performance of a Mahler retouched Beethoven 9 and the first outing for a recently published performance score by Dr David Pickett that draws on both the 1895 and 1900 retouchings.* This presents a dilemma for the conductor (and for his audience): if a special occasion is deemed to be taking place, as publicity and the concert programme had us expect, how should the performance be handled, and is the Pickett conflation an echt Mahler retouching any more than it is echt Beethoven? And will it tell us much about what a Beethoven performance conducted by Mahler would have sounded like? How it is interpreted counts because this is a work whose unretouched core – except that conductors have always given it the odd oiling and polishing – was first heard in London 10 months after its 1824 Vienna premiere and has become so familiar to classical musical enthusiasts that the most amateur among them can sing, hum or whistle impromptu long stretches from any of the movements. More important, audiences have come to expect a vibrant exposition of the symphony’s universalist and revolutionary message.Mahler had a deep respect for Beethoven’s work. His 9th retouchings mainly centred on questions of balance that sprang from the larger orchestras and concert halls of his day (for example, horn and trumpet numbers are doubled) and overcoming the limitations of early 19th century musical instruments (particularly the brass). The most obvious instrumental modification is the use of a tuba (not yet invented in Beethoven’s day) and a second set of timpani used sparingly in the first movement and placed with the other percussion away from the main timpani.

Under the circumstances – showcasing a novelty – it was appropriate that Neeme Järvi emphasised the Mahlerian textures, so we could absorb the wider range of colour. The deeper sonorities are particularly impressive – the tuba, for example, brings a sharper focus to the contrast between light and darkness that runs like a stream through the symphony. In the “Turkish march” passage in the final movement, the percussionists using cymbal, triangle and bass drum (all significant instrumental innovations on Beethoven’s part, bringing “street” music into the symphonic repertoire – enter Berlioz and Mahler himself) were placed well away from the main timpani, so its distinctive, alien nature is emphasized above the whole. Given Mahler’s predilection for marches this adds an extra perspective. Indeed in his 1895 version of the retouching, performed in Hamburg, he placed the woodwind participants in this passage offstage. He abandoned this radical approach in later performances, only to make offstage musicians a prominent feature of his own works.  This symphony has at its core ideals of revolution, freedom and international brotherhood, so it demands performances that bring out the fire and energy. On January 1 in London, Riccardo Chailly conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in a performance so vibrant and full of vitality that it set the bar high for the rest of the year. Järvi’s attention to detail respected the textures in the orchestration but in showcasing the Mahler modifications he seemed to underplay the soaring architecture of the symphony that gives it such power. The first movement was plodding and prolonged and the third threatened to grind to a halt.  Beethoven’s 9th is a prototype of the song symphony that Mahler was to develop so beautifully. It’s surprising, then, that the song elements didn’t get greater prominence; they play an important role throughout the symphony – before the actual vocal parts enter in the last movement. The solo singing was of a respectable quality, with the bass Peter Rose deserving special mention for forcefully and authoritatively delivering the injunction “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” and limpidly kicking off the Ode to Joy. The choral singing of the London Philharmonic Choir was a disappointment compared with the precise diction and delivery of the Leipzig choirs for Chailly, but the sheer presence of a Beethoven 9 chorus imparts a sense of theatre that rarely fails to impress. This symphony was conceived on a grand scale, and Mahler faithfully extends the concept of music as spectacle. Volume is always stirring and, accordingly, the reception was enthusiastic. Like many such audiences in the past, a large number of those in the RFH were probably not especially committed to either Mahler or Beethoven, so could enjoy themselves in a direct, uncomplicated way, unconcerned about authenticity or lack thereof. The Mahler edition can almost certainly be played with more éclat than Järvi offered us (surely it was by Mahler!) and the best chance of its doing so might be when its “novelty” is given less prominence or it is served up unannounced. Mahler’s biographer, Henry-Louis de La Grange, reports that for years the German-American conductor William Steinberg routinely used a Mahler retouched version for his Beethoven 9 performances. American critics did not reproach him for this or even appear to notice that what he was doing was out of the ordinary.  

Roger Thomas

* David Pickett responds: " - - the programme notes for the concert erroneously stated: '...Tonight the LPO plays a final performing version by Dr David Pickett, based on Mahler's 1895 and 1900 scores...'. There was actually no conflation of sources. The edition is based solely on Mahler's 1900 score and parts that he made in Vienna and used from then on until his death. q.v. http://www.fugato.com/pickett/beeth9.shtml".

Illustration: Mahler conducting the Beethoven 9th Symphony in Strasbourg (1905)
[Centre Documentation Musicale-BGM]



Mahler Symphony No.5

Mozart Piano Concerto No.17 in G, K453
Philharmonia Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel

Emanuel Ax (piano)
Royal Festival Hall Saturday, February 21, 2009

Everyone came to the Festival Hall, and many queued for returns, to see Dudamel (world famous for his work in Venezuela) do Mahler with a major London symphony orchestra.

The first half was frustrating with his diminutive figure (and a shock of hair like the young Rattle's) only glimpsed behind the lid of the piano. I found Emmanuel Ax had little to say about Mozart on the Steinway Grand (several college post-grad students I have heard could have brought more to it) and, really, the Philharmonia's leader could equally well have directed the concerto "from the violin" as used to be the way...

It is hard to make valid comparisons between present and memories from the distant past. I first heard Mahler V live in the heady days after the War at its first British performance - October 21, 1945, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Heinz Unger at Cambridge Theatre:

For older listeners Mahler straddled the second half of the last century, each of us with precious memories and an ongoing process of renewal and revaluation. A virtually unknown composer during ones formative English schooldays, discovered through Walter's Vienna recordings of Das Lied von der Erde and the 9th Symphony, in huge piles of 78s; life was never quite the same afterwards. It was a long wait to hear Mahler live, with his prohibitively enormous, costly orchestras.

My first encounter with those was the 5th, soon after the War, at the rehearsal and performance in a London's Cambridge Theatre, with the LPO, struggling manfully with this strange and demanding music - at reheasal it proved hard for their first trumpeter, getting increasingly red-faced, to get beyond the opening call to attention to the satisfaction of Heinz Unger. At the end, Unger shared his historic triumph with the composer, holding the score proudly high aloft - a gesture which has tended to become a cliché, but felt wholly appropriate then for that auspicious occasion, a turning point for Mahler appreciation in UK.

Dudamel fixes your attention and that of his players, establishing unwavering attention. Every phrase and bar was alive, and the complex contrapuntalism perfectly balanced so that you heard detail that may have escaped you before. The dynamic range was collosal, the pianissimi especially revealing, and bringing oft needed relief from the more strenuous and louder music. Regrettably there is a downside for those with keen ears, ambient noise that is so common in many/most modern concert halls, generally high pitched and probably coming from the lighting; hard to ignore and screen out once you've noticed it. It can destroy extreme quietness and silent pauses that can be intrinsic to some works (see discussion of Cage's 4'33" in Tallini's guitar recital).

With only a single press ticket I am at an age when there is a risk of inadvertent dozing in concerts, in my case, paradoxically, more likely when it is loud; normally my wife brings me back quickly... None of that this time, Dudamel compelled concentrated, alert listening. (A nearish neighbour did dose during the Adagietto; my only real criticism of the performance was that it was too slow for my taste and some modern scholars and was less affecting than sometimes.)

A similar performance with Dudamel's own Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is available from DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON and from its reviews is clearly desirable, though in the case of this charismatic young conductor there really is no substitute for attending his concerts live. His Mahler V with the Philharmonia will certainly be numbered as a performance of the year.

Peter Grahame Woolf

See too 1. The Times

and also 2. Archiv Musik's extensive review of the CD, DG 000983702 (Editor)

MAHLER Symphony No. 5 • Gustavo Dudamel, cond; Simon Bolivar Youth Orch • At this point in time, it’s a bit hard to separate substance from celebrity when writing about conductor Gustavo Dudamel. - - No one could accuse this young man of shying away from competition, even from such established predecessors as Karajan, Bernstein, Kubelík, Abbado, Sinopoli, and Boulez in the Mahler - - this chance to revisit Dudamel and his impressive young compatriots, therefore, was most welcome. - - This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking performance. The accomplishment of this orchestra is little short of astonishing, and the synergy between orchestra and conductor is evident in every minute of this recording. The sound is warm, detailed, and spacious, with decent bass. - - (Arkiv Musik review)

2. Mahler 5 received a mesmerising performance, the Philharmonia playing impeccably and with virtuosity, the at-other-concerts reticent double basses having real presence. - - In the famous (“Death in Venice”) Adagietto, Dudamel avoided sentimental schmaltz for something tranquil and melancholic; such restraint made the music much more moving. The finale brought flexibility of rhythms and dynamics giving the music a gripping drama yet avoiding bombast, textures once more revealed with razor-sharp clarity. Mahler 5 is an over-played work, but this was an exhilarating and intoxicating performance of it. [Classical Source]