The Tale of Two Mahlers

Another weekend gone. Another one deducted from fifty two.

It was a rather packed weekend again. In two days, I would have listened to Mahler’s 6th symphony twice, watched two movies (“Green Chair” & “Shanghai Blues”) and started reading a new novel (Murakami’s “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle”).

The Mahler concert was superb. It was a fitting finale to the 04/05 season and most of all, a fitting finale to Kees Bakels’ tenure as music director of the MPO. Kees is a Mahlerian and the MPO is a Mahlerian orchestra, in my opinion. It has played Mahler really well. Perhaps this is due to the young orchestra, both in terms of the age of the orchestra as well as the average age of the players. Its playing is edgy and daring at times. In true Mahlerian spirit.

I was going through my CD shelve to look for the Mahler 6th that is in my collection. Being a compulsive Mahlerian at a point, I have a couple of hundred of CDs of Mahler’s work alone. And it surpises me to notice that I do not actually have a lot of recordings of Mahler’s 6th. Perhaps Mahler 6th is not a work that I liked that much. I certainly love Mahler 9th and it can still make me cry when I listen to it.

Anyways, the purpose of me searching for my Mahler 6th CDs is to compare the various timing of the recordings. Here are the CDs that are in my collection and their various timing for each movement:-

1. Benjamin Zander. Philharmonia Orchestra. 25.27, 12.29, 16.23, 31.59. [version 1]
2. Leonard Bernstein. New York Philharmonic. 21.29, 12.27, 15.19, 28.45. [version 1]
3. Pierre Boulez. Vienna Philharmonic. 23.06, 12.19, 14.47, 29.10. [version 1]
4. Klaus Tennstedt. London Philharmonic. 23.36, 13.04, 17.21, 32.57. [version 1]
5. Herbert von Karajan. Berlin Philharmonic. 22.09, 13.16, 17.03, 30.00. [version 1]
6. Heinz Rogner. Berlin Radio Symphony. 24.52, 12.00, 14.52, 30.33. [version 2]
7. Simon Rattle. City of Birmingham Symphony. 25.36, 13.18, 16.51, 30.32. [version 2]
8. George Szell. Cleveland Orchestra. 17.45, 13.11, 13.30, 28.56. [version 1]
9. Seiji Ozawa. Boston Symphony. 23.33, 13.36, 15.02, 30.40. [version 1]
10. Leonard Bernstein. Vienna Philharmonic. [version 1]
11. Klaus Tennstedt (live version). London Philharmonic. 25.33, 14.12, 17.45, 33.33 [version 1]
12. John Barbirolli. New Philharmonia. 21.19, 13.59, 16.03, 32.47. [version 1]

Version 1 = scherzo, then andante. Version 2 is the reverse.

The MPO booklet said that they shall play different versions for each of the performance. I attended the Saturday and the Sunday performance. On Saturday, they played version 1 with 3 hammerblows. That’s the version that I liked best and I was really excited. On Sunday, the booklet said that they will play version 2 but on that day, Kees said that the orchestra and himself felt that the right way to play it is really to play the scherzo first, then the andante.

I absolutely, totally, unequivocally agree.

And so they played.

The first movement started off on an excellent tempo, not as slow and heavy as Barbirolli and not as fast and rushed as Szell. Based on my watch, the first movement clocked almost 24 minutes. That’s about right. The tempo that I liked. The Alma Theme was sweeping and lifted the heavy thumping of the fate motif to a brighter ground. There is hope. Our Hero’s time is not up yet. There is still Love. And Hope.

The second movement, the scherzo, started off with an “imitation” of the fate thumping motif heard in the first movement but slowly again to be replaced with some sort of a dance that Mahler loved. Some sort of a Danse Macabre, heard already even in his first symphony. The clarinets and oboes were playing and teasing, sometimes playful, sometimes eerie. The MPO performed that superbly well.

And the beautiful, reassuring andante followed. It is poetry in itself, declaring love and hope, only to note that it is sometimes at the verge of sinking into darkness, but yet still afloat. Major key and minor key interplayed seamlessly. It can make you feel warm and be in heaven at one time. And at another time, it made you feel like what Nietzsche said, “…and if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” The MPO strings and woodwind section is just simply superb.

The finale belongs to the hammer and the brass section. Fiery, wild and hard, the Hero fights his way up, overcoming various obstacles only to have all his hope smashed by a hammerblow. He fights once again and there is a glimpse of hope, then again, the second hammerblow descended upon him. And we see that he tried to pick himself up from the crumble, from all the cruelties, and as he has merely accumulated a pinch of hope, the final hammerblow descended on him. This time, he could not get up. Our Hero cannot rise again. He has no strength. He is spent and completely exhausted. He is waiting for death. Shivering helplessly. He does not want to carry on anymore. The brass section, playing the octave motif, bid him farewell. And his eyes shone for one last time as the orchestra played in fortissimo. And then we hear his final heartbeat. He has gone.

The MPO principal percussionist built a wooden hammer and struck on some crates that he has also created. The effect as Mahler required is some sort of a thud sound. The MPO did fairly well with the hammer but being an obsessive Mahlerite, I would certainly wished the thud to be more thudful! This MPO hammerblow is loud, but the thud is just not thud enough! I loved what Benjamin Zander did in his recording and also what Bernstein did with the Vienna Philharmonic. You can really feel our Hero falling to the ground. And your heart went down with him.

But overall, it was a great performance. Kudos to the MPO. We are indeed fortunate to have such a good orchestra here in KL.

Next season, they are playing Mahler’s 5th (again!! – come on, not this already) and also Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). Das Lied is one of my favourite piece by Mahler. Looking forward to that very much.

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Filed under Gustav Mahler, Music

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