Wednesday, 9 September 2009


Help - I just can't stop being blitzed. Writing this is something of the breather I need after the hammerblow of the second-act denouement in MacMillan's The Sacrifice, which in the WNO performance soon to be released by Chandos is just as unbearable as it was in the theatre when I didn't know what was coming; must get on with score-following Act Three and write the note, but it's heavy stuff. And though since the Leipzig Gewandhaus/Chailly Prom of Mahler 10 I tried two mornings of meditative silence followed by late Strauss - also a Leipzig performance, of the Second Horn Concerto with Hermann Baumann - the dark end of Great Art will insist on coming back to bite me. Never mind, there's a catharsis of sorts to come in The Sacrifice.

As there was on Monday evening, but still, I didn't sleep well afterwards and that Mahler 10 has been back to haunt me ever since. So let's just try some objectivity. I don't intend to spend long on the work itself; the clear and noble aims of Deryck Cooke in his essentially unsurpassable edition say it all (and are quoted at the head of the relevant entry over on Entartete Musik). The programme note by David Matthews, who worked on further revisions of the score with his brother Colin, further amplifies the honourable intent.

As I tried discreetly to intimate in my own LSO note on the Adagio only, also reproduced in the LSO Live recording of Gergiev's Barbican performance, I just don't understand those conductors - and there are great 'uns in their ranks, including Abbado and formerly Bernstein - who won't go beyond what the composer actually scored in full. That usually means just the Adagio, though Mahler also completed the first 28 bars of the weird and, in Chailly's performance, riveting central Purgatorio movement, and left a full-score sketch of the first scherzo. The Adagio's counterpart in the finale is so much bigger and more multi-dimensional that I can't imagine life without it. Here's Mahler's remarkable gravestone in Grinzing Cemetery, which we visited three years ago.

Alma and her daughter Manon, the 'angel' of Berg's Violin Concerto and daughter of Alma's subsequent marriage to her lover of 1910 Walter Gropius, are buried nearby, but maybe I'll save the latter image when the time comes to talk of another masterpiece. More relevant, perhaps, is the Schoenberg painting of the Grinzing funeral, which I was surprised to come across, probably on the same Vienna visit, in a marvellous exhibition at this other great man's museum:

Do I think that Mahler would have changed a lot in his short score? Of course: there are a couple of climaxes, maybe, too many in both scherzos, and if I were Mahler I'd have crossed out the slow music's struggle to make itself heard in the middle of the finale's central inferno so that its return is all the more powerful. But I'm not, and God knows he must have had his reasons.

And Chailly's interpretation? I have absolutely no doubt that he lives the experience in every fibre even more than he did when the Berlin Radio SO performance illustrated above was first issued (with Schoenberg's full-strings Verklarte Nacht) 23 years ago. I do still think, incidentally, that though it might be time for his recorded second thoughts, Chailly gets the 'second' Berlin orchestra's strings to do the most astonishing leap of love at the end of any interpretation I've heard.

I was astonished to see some folk complaining that he makes Mahler sound like Puccini - as if Puccini were in any way second rate as a master of the orchestra (he isn't, whatever your feelings about his operatic subject matter). In any case, it seems that Italians with their bel canto tradition succeed in Mahler, as in Tchaikovsky, precisely because it needs to sing: that's certainly the case with Abbado, Muti and Pappano (the latter two, admittedly, I've only heard in Tchaik, but I'd eagerly listen to Pappano's Mahler).

Is the Leipzig orchestra right for the job? Its strings are so innately, and rather introspectively, cultured, if by no means as reticent and wiry as they were in the Masur era, that I wondered if they could reach out to the Viennese heartsurges. I think they did, though I found the violas at the beginning a little poker-faced. And they didn't always follow Chailly through the multiple gear-changes of the first scherzo, where tensions ease into ecstatic if slightly manic joy.

Sure, the trumpets split a few notes - who wouldn't - but their sound was chillingly penetrating. Less so, perhaps, the horns, especially as compared to the Dresdeners and the RPO (yes, indeed) earlier this season. I wonder if the crucial flute solo emerging out of the darkness in the finale wasn't a little flat - or was that just to sound wan and lost to begin with?

Anyway, to the most controversial stroke added to the Matthews brothers' further work on Cooke: the anacrusis (can one call it grace noting?) to the big fireman's-drum thwack at the end of the second scherzo and, ever more apocalyptically, throughout the finale: da-der-duum, one might best describe it. I thought it added terror; Jill, my companion in the Arena, thought it was Mahler's faltering heartbeat (viz the opening of the Ninth). I would, as I wrote in a message to Gavin, like to know the reasoning - did drums at firemen's funerals play upbeats like this, perhaps? - but at a deeper, emotional level it more than did its work. And even though I think I know the finale pretty well by now since Rattle's live and recorded championship (not to mention the - to me - very disapointing VPO/Harding version and the rather absurd completions by others, not a patch on Cooke, I don't think), it still staggered me how the great endless melody of Mahler's metaphysical love for Alma kept on unfolding. The silence at the end said it all, and what a miracle given the size of a packed Albert Hall.

Shoes ripping like velcro on the sticky arena floor and restless newcomers had made it harder to focus on the Mendelssohn First Piano Concerto in the first half. But I could tell that young Palestinian Israeli Saleem Abboud Ashkar drew an effortlessly wide-ranging rainbow of colours from the keyboard. Here's a photo by Monika Rittershaus of the thoughtful young Christian from Nazareth, whose eloquent words to Helen Wallace I very much enjoyed reading in the programme.

I could also tell from what little attention I was able to give that you don't get much more authentic than the noble Leipzig timbre in the slow movement. Still, I think I'd prefer my Mendelssohn in more intimate surroundings (as I had the Second Concerto with Schiff in Oxford).

The Germans' enterprising week of Leipzig celebrations, marking chiefly the first peaceful uprisings 20 years ago that triggered the fall of the Berlin Wall and in which Masur's impassioned speech played a crucial part, continued last night at the German ambassador's residence in Belgrave Square. There was too much of a crush to see the exhibition, of striking work by Leipzig's No. 1 artist Neo Rauch, well enough (I'd like to go back), but we did grab prime seats in the L-shaped ballroom for the Gewandhaus konzertmeister Frank-Michael Erben in a Hauskonzert with a lady I presume to be his mother, Professor Mathilde Erben. Following a very moving speech - moving because he was clearly moved himself - by the Mayor of Leipzig, Erben gave a seemingly effortless and upper-register-sweet performance of Mendelssohn's F major Sonata, and proved just at home in unflashy but mostly pitch-perfect and stylishly rubatoed Kreisler and Sarasate showpieces (with the Meditation from Massenet's Thais as an encore). He was duly feted by the German ambassador and Mrs. Christiane Boomgaarden. The putative Mutti-Professor can just be glimpsed between them.

I spoke to Erben very briefly afterwards and he said, yes, the Proms are always very special. Good news: the Gewandhaus have/has just signed a contract for a Barbican residency. They're certainly quite unlike any other great orchestra in their silky refinement.


Colin Dunn said...

I enjoyed your comments about Mahler Ten, David.

Like you I am also troubled by those conductors who only perform, or record, the opening Adagio. The reasoning behind this seems to be a wish to present Mahler as Mahler, rather than in the rest of the work, as Mahler diluted/reconstructed/tampered with by Deryck Cooke. But it's surely a failure to acknowledge, as you've suggested, that Mahler would have fiddled with the symphony for some time, as he did with the Resurrection and others as and when required according to acoustics and timbre and, quite honestly, individual players. Bernstein never recorded the complete work, and this must be a source of regret.

The opening movement does cause me terrible insomnia, so I do sympathise. The whole work really is central to the Western tradition.

David said...

Wise words as usual, Colin. Surely the bottom-line question is, would the world be a poorer place without this completion? And the answer, as far as I'm concerned, is a thousand times yes. Mahler takes us different places in this finale to the ones in the totally dissimilar endgames of the Ninth and Das Lied. And I really can't say which is the greatest; I don't have to choose. Lucky us!

Gavin Plumley said...

Of course, I agree wholeheartedly with this David... bar the suggestion that Pappano may be a passionate Mahlerian. I'm not of the mind that his full-blooded lush, plush and dangerous to know interpretations of the Austro-German rep are entirely-wrongheaded, but Mahler needs a delicate balance of lushness and astrigency. I think Pappano lacks the latter. His Wozzeck and Lulu were both too soft-edged for me... Jurowski was much better in the former. Pappano also just doesn't have the architectural chops for driving the pieces along. REALLY want to relive Monday evening now.

David said...

Well, I don't know. I can't agree about Pappano's Wozeeck and Lulu, which I found supernaturally beautiful. Not the whole story perhaps, but not one I'd heard in quite that way before.

Would he do the tough stuff, like Six, well? Difficult to say. Found the Lady Macbeth didn't hit hard enough, but his Grimes did. I know I'd love to hear a Mahler Four from him, and probably a Ten too.

He's a great musician, whatever you might find temperamentally - from your perspective - lacking in him.

Anonymous said...

It was disappointing to see some of the critics' attention siphoned away from this Mahler 10 - one of the highlights of the Proms season, surely?- by the Royal Opera opening its season with an Opera Rara recording tie-in/ Donizetti yawner.

Result: no Sunday Times, no Observer coverage for the Prom......

The Times did both the Prom and the Donizetti. For the latter the impartial critic stepping forward being Neil..... son of Susan Fisher, ROH Head of Communications.

David said...

Curious, I admit - though I usually trust NF's judgment and he has a good style.

And, indeed, bad timing, though there can't have been many folk who really wanted to be at both (I like La Stupenda in 'O luce di quest'anima' and the very memorable love duet with Pavarotti, but I'm not sure I'd seek out the whole of Linda di C).

Anyway, 6000 plus spectators and who knows how many more on the airwaves for the Mahler isn't bad - and I think I saw Hugh Canning there, who I know admires Chailly and surely would have something to say about it in the Sunday Times.

JVaughan said...

If it is still available, I may not be up for a complete Mahler symphonny this afternoon, but would be curious as to whether or not the Gewandhaus oboes still play with that central-European sort of vibrato in which they used to play under Maestro Masur and in the Sawallisch original-German _Elijah_.

J. V.

David said...

You've got me there, JV, I'm not sure I noticed, and I should have done since I'm an oboist myself, though I thought the orchestral wind were good except for that possibly flat flute in the finale.

Didn't it used to be a rather wan sound? Mackerras - another oboist - talked about the right central European remoteness for Strauss's Dulcinea, and personally I've always disliked the weedy Vienna tone. I like a beefier oboist like Nick Daniel or the great Maurice Bourgue. Couldn't stand that Berlin one they used to have, though things have very much changed for the better there too.

JVaughan said...

From what little I heard, the manner of vibrato in this Gewandhaus Mahler was not objectionable at all. My personal preference is for the basic American manner, both as per tone and vibrato. It was the sort of vibrato that I used to find somewhat objectionable in Central-European playing (possibly akin to what is pejoratively called "nanny-goat" in brass-band and old British military-band playing?), though, unlike yourself, I rather enjoyed the Vienna manner. I recall the BPO's principal oboist sounding rather American in Maestro Von Karajan's last _Missa_ _Solemnis_, though the sound seemed to have changed again by the time of Maestro Harnoncourt's _Freischutz_. As for English oboists, my favourite is probably Mr. N. Black.

J. V.

David said...

No, sorry, Neil Black's tone was always too fey for me, though he was such a gentleman. It's a matter of taste - my love of the oboe was transformed by hearing Maurice Bourgue play the Strauss Oboe Concerto, though I never got anywhere near the sound (or the technique).

Mr. Black, by the way, would have been in that Mackerras Barbican performance I mentioned. Wasn't clarinettist Thea King in the ECO then as well, or do I confuse it with the London Mozart Players?

JVaughan said...

I am not 100 per-cent certain, but I think you are right about Miss King and the ECO.

J. V.

p.s. I seem to _VAGUELY_ recall Mr. Bourgue's name, but am not sure if and where I have heard it. Did he record the Strauss?

The LondonJazz site said...

I'm not sure if Bourgue recorded the Stauss, but he did have VERY strong views on how it should be phrased.

I remember in the dim and distant hearing him giving a masterclass on it on French radio, where he destroyed a female New Zealand oboist who had attempted it, with a sentence something like:

"If you walked the way you have just played, you would fall off the pavement with every step, and you'd knock into every lamp-post.."

Gentle fey types these oboists....

David said...

Was talking to Anthony Burton, another oboist, at the Nielsen bash about how there's an 'oboist' look among men - speccy, lanky (I know that doesn't cover N Daniel and M Bourgue).

And I remember walking down Frederick Street in the 1980s and meeting a BBC sound-engineer who was a friend of my friend, and he looked at me and said, 'ah, oboist'.