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Fine, fine article on Mahler's Sixth, and more

It is, however, easier to read (because of sidebars) on the original webpage, noted at bottom. I just don't know how long that will be available.


Dark star

Michael Tilson Thomas, Michael Gielen, and Benjamin Zander attempt to light up Gustav Mahler’s ‘Tragic’ Sixth Symphony

ANSWERS TO MAHLER'S EXISTENTIAL QUESTIONS? Not from Tilson Thomas, but Gielen and Zander provide some illumination.
THE REAL TRAGEDY: a contemporary cartoon from the satirical weekly Die Muskete catches the moment of agony when Mahler realizes he forgot to write anything for the motor horn.

Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony (San Francisco Symphony). Two discs (24:33; 14:02; 17:27; 31:22: 87:24), recorded live September 12-15, 2001.

Michael Gielen/SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg (Hänssler). Two discs (24:51; 14:29; 14:46; 30:40: 84:46), with Berg’s Drei Orchesterstücke Opus 6 and Schubert’s Andante in B minor; Mahler recorded September 7-10, 1999.

Benjamin Zander/Philharmonia (Telarc). Three discs (25:27; 12:29; 16:23; 31:59: 86:18), including original and revised versions of the Finale and bonus disc, recorded May 22-25, 2001.

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Order, please

When it comes to Mahler mysteries, the Sixth Symphony leads the pack. The nickname "Tragic" turns up on the program for the January 4, 1907, Vienna premiere — but was it the composer’s idea? A phrase from Liszt’s E-flat Piano Concerto (third movement, bar 18) became a major component of the first-movement march theme (bar 35), but did Mahler borrow it on purpose or did he just have it in his head after conducting the concerto in January 1903? And when Alma tells us that the second theme is Gustav’s musical portrait of her, should we believe her? She also tells us that the Scherzo’s "Altväterisch" Trio represents the "unrhythmical games" of their two daughters; yet in the summer of 1903, when Mahler composed that movement, Maria was less than a year old and Anna hadn’t been born. Debate rages over whether the finale should have two or three hammer blows (there may originally have been five). But the most controversial of Mahler controversies concerns the order of the inner movements.

Mahler conceived his Sixth Symphony with the Scherzo second and the Andante third. The usual practice is slow movement second and dance movement third, but Beethoven reversed that order in his Ninth Symphony, and Mahler himself did so in his Fourth. He appears to have been uncertain which order he wanted in the Sixth, however, since he switched the original Roman numerals on his autograph. C.F. Kahnt published the score with the Scherzo preceding the Andante, but during rehearsals for the symphony’s premiere (in Essen in May 1906), Mahler decided that the Andante should precede the Scherzo, and he instructed Kahnt to insert errata slips into unsold copies of the score. That’s how the symphony was performed in his lifetime, and that’s how his friend Willem Mengelberg did it with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 1916.

Then in 1919, as he was preparing to conduct the Sixth once again, Mengelberg — probably after coming across a pre-errata-slip Scherzo/Andante copy of the score — telegraphed Alma for clarification. She answered tersely, "First Scherzo, then Andante," and that’s how Mengelberg did it in 1919 and 1920. Also in 1920, however, Oskar Fried conducted the Sixth in Vienna Andante/Scherzo, and that order remained the norm. Neither was there a peep out of Alma in 1947 when Dmitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic played it that way at the symphony’s American premiere, or when Andante/Scherzo recordings began to appear in the ’50s.

In 1963, the Critical Edition of the Sixth came out from the International Gustav Mahler Society in Vienna, and lo and behold the Scherzo was back in its original position, editor Erwin Ratz explaining that Mahler had quickly realized his mistake and restored the Scherzo/Andante order. Ratz provided no evidence for this statement; he didn’t even cite Alma’s telegram. Nonetheless, few conductors challenged his edition. John Barbirolli continued to perform the piece Andante/Scherzo, but on his 1967 recording, EMI switched the movements, apparently without his approval, to conform to the Critical Edition. (In the most recent release of this performance, in its Forte series, EMI has reswitched them so they’re back to the order Barbirolli favored.) Harold Farberman (who was from 1950 to 1963 a percussionist with the BSO) stuck with the Andante/Scherzo order on his MMG LP with the London Symphony in 1982; when Vox released this performance on CD in 2000, however, it switched the movements to the Critical Edition order (here again the conductor was not consulted). Benjamin Zander’s first performance with the Boston Philharmonic (briefly available on tape in the mid ’80s) had the Andante before the Scherzo, but on both his 1994 live BPO recording and this new Philharmonia effort, he’s reverted to the Critical Edition. Simon Rattle remains the most outspoken advocate of the Andante/Scherzo order, and his 1989 recording of the Sixth has become the whipping boy of uninformed reviewers.

There is, it turns out, not a shred of evidence that Mahler changed his mind about wanting the Andante to precede the Scherzo. That will become clearer in October when a "white paper" by Jerry Bruck (he was among those who back in 1964 persuaded Alma to allow Mahler’s Tenth Symphony to be performed) is published by the Gilbert Kaplan Foundation. Bruck’s arguments moved Glen Cortese to adopt the Andante/Scherzo order in his 1998 recording with the Manhattan School of Music Symphony; Leonard Slatkin and James Judd have done so since, and Leon Botstein conducted it that way last weekend at the Bard Music Festival. The International Gustav Mahler Society is itself having second thoughts.

So what is the case for Scherzo/Andante? Benjamin Zander, among others, reminds us that Andante/Scherzo alters the original conception in which the end of the E-flat Andante connects with the C-minor (same key signature) beginning of the Finale. (Mahler was, of course, aware of this alteration, and indeed you could ask why the Finale should aim for the same key the previous movement finished in.) The distinguished Mahler biographer and musicologist Henry-Louis de La Grange suggests that Mahler made the switch because he was "frightened of the audacity of his own conception." Jerry Bruck, on the other hand, feels that the symphony is more frightening — more "tragic" — when the Alpine refuge of the Andante is followed by the todtentanz terror of the Scherzo.

On one point Zander is incontrovertibly right: there are two Mahler Sixths. One has hogged the spotlight over the past 39 years. The other is just beginning to get its due.

— JG

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If there’s an Oedipus or a King Lear of symphonies, it’s Gustav Mahler’s Sixth, the "Tragic." Big, black, and cathartic, with a "fate" rhythm, a recurrent A-major chord that immediately deflates into A minor, and a pair (or perhaps trio) of hero-felling hammer blows, it follows Sophocles and Shakespeare in calling the universe into question. Wilhelm Furtwängler labeled it "the first nihilist work in the history of music." Bruno Walter argued that it "ends in hopelessness and the dark night of the soul . . . the ‘other world’ is not glimpsed for a moment." Leonard Bernstein described the Finale as the "catastrophe of homo sapiens himself."

Lenny was being his usual hyperbolic self: that Finale might affirm the mortality of humankind, but it doesn’t invent the atom bomb. And someone must have torn a few pages out of Bruno Walter’s score, since in the opening Allegro, the soldier in his march with love and death goosesteps into the Garden, a pastoral Paradise garbed in the remote (from A minor) and redemptive (Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Emperor Concerto, Mahler’s own Resurrection Symphony) key of E-flat major. Mahler’s Sixth is his "Supernova" Symphony: it does blow itself to bits (in the process spewing much controversy), but not before pealing forth wave upon wave of cacophonous, exultant Creation.

This is also Mahler’s most classical symphony, the life of a star expressed in yin-yang expansion and contraction. The panoply of percussion instruments includes timpani, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, harp, celesta, xylophone, glockenspiel, tambourine, tam-tam, deep (church?) bells, cowbells, holzklapper, birch switch, and that hammer, from which Mahler wanted a dull sound, like the thud of an ax. (A contemporary cartoon shows the composer holding his head in dismay and saying, "Dear God, to think that I should have forgotten the motor horn! Well, I’ll just have to write another symphony.") But those eruptive forces give voice to an Aristotelian unity of matter, as the symphony’s initial motifs morph and evolve like a star going through phases. Throughout Mahler evokes the atmosphere of his Kindertotenlieder ("Songs of the Death of Children"), which he finished in 1904, the same summer he completed the Sixth; and in fact the cadential figure from the first of these songs, "Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n," is echoed in the Andante. Just as the Kindertotenlieder hover between sorrow and salvation, so the symphony teeters between its apparent A-minor fate and the hope of transforming that key into A major or else escaping into E-flat major.

The A-minor march of the Allegro energico, ma non troppo ("energetic allegro, but not too much") also alludes to doomed figures from a Mahler song cycle, in this case the soldiers of "Revelge" ("Reveille") and the drummer boy of "Der Tamboursg’sell" in Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth’s Magic Horn"). But innocence has given way to industrialism (perhaps it’s no accident that the symphony premiered in Essen), and though this juggernaut is, like the marches that begin Mahler’s Second, Fifth, and Seventh Symphonies, fueled by the composer’s characteristic dotted rhythm, it’s driven and dogged-cynical like nothing else Mahler wrote, moving in lemming lockstep until brought up short by a moody, melancholy chorale that shimmers like a vibrating string. This is followed by a rhapsodic F-major melody that the composer’s wife, Alma, tells us was her husband’s attempt to depict her in music.

These three elements ignite not just this first movement but the entire symphony, love and death mediated by mystery. The battleground, though, is that dotted rhythm, which in Mahler always propels us toward the beyond (God or nothing): it underlines the undotted chorale and infiltrates the Alma theme. Mahler’s martial/marital mix dissolves into E-flat paradise, where celesta and cowbells celebrate the harmony of the spheres and the Alma theme is transfigured, eventually getting undotted. This can’t last; ordinary time resumes, along with the march. Yet in the coda it’s the Alma theme that soars, joined by a theme borrowed from Liszt’s E-flat Piano Concerto that undots itself and erupts in noisy, triumphant, A-major joy.

The Andante and the Scherzo attempt to sustain that mood. (Whether the Andante should come before the Scherzo or vice versa has been a matter of debate for the past 96 years — see "Order, please," opposite.) The Andante might logically start in celestial E major (the key of the vision of Heaven with which Mahler’s Fourth Symphony concludes), but it manages only E-flat, hopeful that its redeemer liveth. Like the slow movements of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mahler’s Third and Fourth, this is an encounter with the Burning Bush, the two primary themes impaled on the thorns of dream and doubt. The E-flat episode from the Allegro was all transcendence; this Andante, even with its celesta and cowbells, is all immanence, and after glancing at A major it tries to ascend into E major, as if earthly paradise were not enough. Its failure sends us back to A minor: the Scherzo juxtaposes an even fiercer version of the opening march with an "Altväterisch" ("old-fashioned") F-major Trio, which hops from 4/8 to 3/8 to 3/4 while attempting to resurrect a more gracious era, and then a spooky second Trio in F minor with a rising woodwind arpeggio and dancing-skeleton xylophone. It ends in broken rhythms, the arpeggio rising into nothingness.

Or into the Finale, where it becomes part of the primordial soup out of which this gigantic movement forms. A variant of the radiant Alma theme begins in C minor (aiming to emulate Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, which begins in C minor but in the end is redeemed into its relative major, E-flat) and swirls upward before falling into the dotted rhythm and getting cut off by the A-major/minor motto. No easy Apocalypse in this movement. Thematic fragments ghost by in A minor and C minor, but it’s A minor that wins out when the movement proper kicks into gear. Death march, mystery theater, and love theme collide and combine as this star movement tries to fuse hydrogen into helium; twice in the development jubilation takes hold, but each time it’s dragged down — like Faust, or Don Giovanni — by the dotted rhythm of mortality; and the defeat is underscored (though not caused) by the first two hammer blows, at bars 336 and 479. This star does not want for fuel: the recapitulation continues to dream of E-flat, and when that fails it jumps into A major and marches defiantly, twice steamrollering the hitherto traumatic major/minor motto. Paradise reasserts itself, and at the end Mahler’s chthonic trombones annunciate the primary theme in rising waves that then drop — infected by the dotted rhythm — through an A-major scale. This shuffling off of our mortal coil expects to look God in the face by descending to an A-major chord; instead — in one of the most horrific moments in all of music — it lands on a naked, tam-tam-shattered A as the key signature changes to A minor, no God, no answer. Which may explain why Mahler deleted the third hammer blow: coming at bar 783, 10 measures after the catastrophe, it’s redundant. The supernova has become a neutron star, a black hole from which there’s no escape. Tragic? Perhaps. But in the process it has exploded with angelic exhilaration. And the bleak coda subsides into the void from a human point of view. God might see all this differently.

NOT MANY ARTISTS ask such questions — which is why it’s an event to have new recordings of the Sixth by conductors of the stature of Michael Tilson Thomas, Michael Gielen, and Benjamin Zander. All three follow the International Gustav Mahler Society’s Critical Edition in taking the Allegro repeat and placing the Scherzo before the Andante. Tilson Thomas and Gielen give us the two hammer blows called for by the Critical Edition; Zander, who believes that the third hammer blow should be reinstated, lets you hear it both ways. Zander arranges his first and second violins antiphonally, as was Mahler’s practice (actually it was standard practice before the 20th century); Tilson Thomas and Gielen do not. All three performances exceed 80 minutes, so none fits on a single disc. Tilson Thomas provides no filler; Gielen gives you a look at where Mahler was going, in Alban Berg’s Drei Orchesterstücke, and at where he came from, in the Andante from Franz Schubert’s unfinished Symphony No. 10. Zander fills out his second disc with the original (three hammer blows) and the revised (two) version of the Finale, and he throws in a 79-minute third disc on which, as is his practice with his Philharmonia/Telarc Mahler releases, he talks about the symphony; the package sells for the price of one CD.

Taken from live performances last year in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the San Francisco Symphony release has no ambiance, and no presence unless you boost your playback level to the max. Its other shortcoming is Tilson Thomas, who telegraphs every transition with a big ritardando. The Alma theme in the Allegro is mannered and sentimental; on the other hand, the critical woodwind phrases from the bass clarinet in the pastoral section (12:36 and 14:41) are tossed off. The "Altväterisch" Trios in the Scherzo are slow and stiff; the Second Trio opens with a distorted phrase from the oboes and B clarinets (5:19), and the xylophone is backward. The Andante drags self-consciously, the cowbells are backward, and the big E-major climax at bar 154 (13:06) doesn’t move forward; then there’s a huge unmarked ritard on the first violins’ high C in bar 192 (16:09) followed by three seconds of dead silence. The Finale pulls out all the stops with the first appearance of the motto motifs at bar 9 (0:22) and has nowhere to go for the next half-hour. Perhaps it’s not fair to hold Tilson Thomas responsible for performances that may have been mesmerizing in the hall; on disc, however, it all borders on melodrama.

Michael Gielen delivered thoroughly modern — but not mechanistic — Mahler in his previous recordings with the SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg (Nos. 2, 3, 4, 7, and 9), and here too he gives the 21st century a human face. The Allegro is more heavy than quick, the Alma theme surprisingly free and heartfelt — even the Liszt theme swaggers. What goes wrong is the chorale theme and the pastoral section, both being treated as transitions. The Scherzo, thudding but not scary, goes at the same tempo as the Allegro (108 bpm), and the Andante (96 bpm) is hardly slower. And in the Finale, the march themes aren’t savage and the Alma material isn’t sweet (though there’s some lovely string phrasing at the 17-minute mark, in the middle section of the development). Like Tilson Thomas, Gielen doesn’t fight the dotted rhythms in the coda but goes gentle into that good night.

As for Boston Philharmonic music director Benjamin Zander, his Philharmonia Mahler cycle (Nos. 4, 5, and 9 so far) has elicited critical respect if not hosannahs, but this Sixth (due out this Tuesday, August 27) has already drawn unfriendly fire from David Hurwitz on the Classics Today Web site. Hurwitz makes light of the Philharmonia as a Mahler orchestra, pointing to what he calls weak trombones, tuba, and lower strings — and it’s true that Zander’s Telarc Mahler hasn’t had the same strong bottom that you hear in his live Boston performances. (Whether the orchestra or the recording is responsible is another matter.) Still, Zander’s 112 bpm for the Allegro mediates nicely between heft and speed, and the trombones that enter at bar 15 (0:32) are alive and kicking. The chorale (2:09) is hushed, a magnum mysterium; the Alma theme rivals Gielen’s in its tenderness. And the pastoral section has no peer. How you do this depends on whether you view it as just another memory, a dead time from the past, or as a moment out of time, an intimation of immortality. Zander stands back in awe, allowing the major/minor motto in the horns at 13:01 and the trombones at 13:23 to emerge transcendent from the stillness; there are wistful touches from the bass clarinet and the solo violin, and from 15:15 on you can hear every oscillation of the background strings. And if in the coda the "molto ritardando" that Mahler asks for as the Alma theme climaxes is not very "molto" (25:08), it makes its point.

The rest doesn’t quite reach this level. Starting the Scherzo at a fast 132 bpm, Zander distinguishes it from the Allegro (Tilson Thomas and Gielen are less effective), but except for the B clarinet at 3:28, it doesn’t snarl, and the "Altväterisch" Trios, at almost the main tempo, don’t have much old-fashioned feel. The Andante is bereaved and beautiful, with some flowing string playing at 2:44, but the cor anglais that introduces the second subject at 1:49 is oddly recessed, there’s what sounds like a telephone ringing at 8:15, and though Zander conveys the pain of the second subject when it breaks back in at 11:33, there’s not much release (or cowbell clatter) in the climax at 12:41. The Finale starts uncertainly with weak brass for the opening major/minor motto and perfunctory phrasing from the bass tuba and then the A clarinets, and it never quite finds its footing, the long introduction not moving forward where Mahler asks it to and the movement proper not opening up to the Alma material or the hammer-blow climaxes. The coda, as in so many Sixths, seems an afterthought, the dotted phrases tight and unresisting.

Zander’s treatment of the hammer blows and his bonus disc have also come under fire from David Hurwitz. Mahler added the hammer blows after finishing the Finale, at bars 336, 479, and 783 (and possibly also at bars 9 and 530, but if blows originally existed at these bars, they were removed before the Essen premiere). When he revised the symphony in the summer of 1906, he expunged the one at bar 783. Alma, not always the most reliable witness, describes them as the three hammer blows of fate and states that Mahler deleted the third one because he was superstitious. I suspect rather that Mahler realized it was parallel to the two he had already removed; in any case, Zander offers both versions of the movement (though the celesta from the revised version has somehow sneaked into the original at 29:15). Hurwitz considers this an indulgence for the sake of seven bars whose orchestration is practically identical; he also chides Zander for directing the bonus disc to neophyte listeners. I do wish that these "lectures" would address a more knowledgeable audience, but that’s a marketing decision; otherwise, the answer to Hurwitz is that the second version of the Finale or the bonus disc are both gratis.

MAHLER’S EXISTENTIAL QUESTIONS have elicited some eschatological responses. On his Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein unleashes both Gustav’s rhythmic fireworks and his bestiary of sound. Klaus Tennstedt with the London Philharmonic (EMI) has an old-fashioned, almost Jean Paul way with this music (the author of "Report of the Dead Christ from the Beyond That There Is No God" would surely have appreciated the Sixth). John Barbirolli with the New Philharmonia (EMI) phrases weight into meaning; Giuseppe Sinopoli with the Philharmonia (DG) is slower still, deconstructive in a constructive way. And former BSO percussion wunderkind Harold Farberman with the London Symphony (Vox) has an unforced manner, brilliant brass counterpoint, and easily the best cowbells on a two-disc set that sells for about $12.

These performances enjoy a sense of space that modern digital recording seems unable to duplicate. Along with a flat acoustic, Tilson Thomas’s Sixth suffers from liner notes that are run-of-the-mill. The analysis of the symphony that David Hurwitz wrote for Michael Gielen, on the other hand, belongs in the Liner Note Hall of Fame. The Berg and Schubert pieces that fill out the Hänssler set are another bonus; the Drei Orchesterstücke were composed in 1914 with the Sixth in mind, so they represent a kind of epilogue. Objective but not impersonal, Gielen’s Mahler is a good choice for fans of Claudio Abbado. As for Zander, his reading of the Allegro stands with Tennstedt’s as the most moving I have heard (out of some 50), and his set is priced as a single disc, so it’s shame the Finale isn’t more cogent and characterized and the sound isn’t better. Still, that opening movement belongs on every Mahler shelf — it sheds new light on Gustav’s dark star.

Issue Date: August 22 - 29, 2002

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Topic - Fine, fine article on Mahler's Sixth, and more - clarkjohnsen 09:03:35 08/27/02 (5)

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