Monday, September 28, 2009

Mahler: What the FINANCIAL TIMES Tells Me

There are any number of risks when it comes to evaluating the experience of one performance of the music of Gustav Mahler on the basis of a report of another filed half-way around the world. However, bearing those risks in mind, I was still interested in reading what Andrew Clark had to say in the Financial Times about Vladimir Jurowski's first effort to conduct Mahler with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), who twenty years ago had built up some awesome Mahler chops under the baton of Klaus Tennstedt. The closest I have come to a direct experience of Jurowski was the Metropolitan Opera telecast of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel (giving the English title since the performance used David Pountney's English translation). One might think that any connection between Humperdinck and Mahler would be one of the ridiculous to the sublime. However, Mahler was a conductor before he was a composer; and he conducted the Hamburg premier of Humperdinck's opera on September 25, 1894. Having suggested that just about everything in Mahler's "prodigious store of memories" found its way into his compositions in one way or another, I wanted to read about Jurowski simply because his own "experience base" was aligning with Mahler's in an interesting way. My interest was further tweaked when I discovered that the composition Jurowski had selected for his first Mahler experience with the LPO was the second ("Resurrection") symphony, which struck me as a good place to begin for someone with a solid track record in both the concert hall and the opera house.

Nevertheless, I was less interested in Clark's overall evaluation of his experience than I was with one particular observation, which is that Jurowski's approach "underlined how much soft music there is in Mahler," making for "the opposite of a blast-fest." This set me to thinking about the overall conception of the current San Francisco Symphony Mahler Festival with regard to how much soft music Michael Tilson Thomas has selected for his programs. This was immediately evident from his decision to begin the entire affair with the settings of the five poems of Friedrich Rückert that Mahler composed (in the version with piano accompaniment) between 1901 and 1902. Mahler only orchestrated four of these songs; but, when he did, he drew upon some of the sparest, most transparent, and definitely most delicate instrumental resources we encounter in his entire corpus. Indeed, the closest his symphonic writing gets to this kind of instrumentation is the Adagietto of his fifth symphony, which, as Thomas pointed out when it was performed this past Saturday, Mahler was composing at the same time he was working on the Rückert settings. Indeed, that Saturday concert was very much "the opposite of a blast-fest," concluding with a contrived (but surprisingly effective) superposition of the final measures of the ninth symphony with Thomas Hampson singing the opening phrases of the first of the Songs of a Wayfarer.

Writing about the first concert of the San Francisco Symphony Festival for, I included the image of a caricature of Mahler conducting his first symphony, which is probably the ultimate in the effort of pen and ink to convey that concept of a "blast-fest." (A similar caricature was drawn of Richard Strauss conducting his Elektra opera, probably by a different artist.) I chose the caricature because the symphony was the major work on the program; and I even shamelessly appropriated W. S. Gilbert in describing the "beauty in the bellow of this blast." However, even in that symphony, some of Mahler's most interesting moments are the soft ones, particular at the beginning. On the other hand the featured work this coming week will be the fifth symphony, and we shall discover that all that intimacy in the Adagietto will be shattered by the concluding movement (which immediately follows it), in the course of which key thematic material from the Adagietto is reduced to a two-step that would be best suited for either a football field march or a workout class (all this in the context of his setting of the Knaben Wunderhorn poem about a song context between a cuckoo and a nightingale judged by a jackass). Much as I appreciate what Clark had to say, Mahler is far too complex to be reduced to the question of "to blast or not to blast!"

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