Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Interpreting Mahler 4 Harding Orchestre de Paris

Daniel Harding and the Orchestre de Paris, a match made in heaven?   Harding's characteristic intelligence suits this orchestra's finesse.  And now they have a home in the Philharmonie de Paris, which is fast proving to be the finest auditorium in Europe. Berlin is challenged. London will drop far behind unless the British public realizes the importance of excellence.   Performance "is" education, the arts are part of the economy, and a global market means keeping ahead of the competition.  And excellence is what we can look forward to when Harding officially becomes Music Director in Paris from September this year. Listen to their Mahler Symphony no 4 from last week on this link. The concert began with Alban Berg Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust . No prizes for guessing why the two,pieces fit together so well. 

Mahler's songs, symphonies and song symphonies have often been described as "one big symphony" since together they form a remarkably clear trajectory,  It is significant that Harding's Mahler credentials were built upon  the Tenth Symphony. Picked, aged 19, by Claudio Abbado as his assistant, Harding learned from one of the greatest Mahler conductors ever.  Abbado  had exceptional foresight. By giving Harding the Tenth to make his own, he helped Harding develop a unique perspective.  Harding's two recordings of Mahler 10 are benchmarks because they  infuse the Cooke III edition with such imagination that the piece seems like the beginning of a whole new phase in Mahler's work. We shall never know where Mahler might have been heading, but we can perceive from Harding's approach how the Tenth grows from from the past and heads forward into the unknown : (Please read my analysis here)   Mahler's life was at a turning point when he died. Perhaps the Tenth would have been the pivot from which a new phase might have emerged.   Listening to Mahler's Symphony no 4 with Harding and the Orchestre de Paris reaffirms the idea that  the Fourth is, like the Tenth, a pivotal turning point.  Up to this point, Mahler was immersed in ideas arising from the world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  These ideas were crucial to his development, much in the way a cocoon protects the insect within.   But in order to fly, a butterfly must break out of its chrysalis.  

Mahler's Fourth Symphony is by no means mindlessly cheerful.  "Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden" sings the soloist. But the child is dead.  But almost immediately, something darker creeps in. "Kein weltlich' Getümmel Hört man nicht im Himmel!" : the turmoil of worldly cares can't be heard in Heaven.  Der Metzer Herode lies in wait, but the patient lamb gets killed byt St Luke, the physician, the patron saint of Healing.  In the context of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the song operates as a source of comfort for grieving parents, reassuring them that their dead children are safe in Heaven. Perhaps that's why the kid doesn't sing about missing its parents: that would be too heartbreaking and defeat the purpose.  Wunderkind readers, well versed in the Bible, would have understood that man cannot live by bread alone, but through God. In other words by spiritual sustenance.  Das himmlische Leben connects directly to Das irdische Leben. No doubt children were - as they are still - deliberately starved, but famine was a fact of life for many, especially in the past. Des Knaben Wunderrhorn seems to glamorize for those who don't appreciate the harsh realities of European history. Without an inner spiritual life,  is there any point to life at all ? 

Thus in Symphony no 4, Mahler is saying goodbye to Wunderhorn. Harding's Fourth with the Orchestre de Paris is so sensitively shaped that it reminds us that life is fragile, and that being vulnerable is in fact a much greater source of inner strength than the need to dominate at all costs.  Like the liebliches Lämmlein, the roebuck and the hare let themselves be slaughtered.  Why? It's not passivity. The pure in heart attain heaven,  while those who need violence end up like Herod, eternally thwarted.  Symphony no 4 reaffirms the idea of resurrection implicit in Symphony no 2  This time, however, the person being resurrected is closer in focus, more personal, and the  very idea of death defeated. Wunderhorn readers would have had no problem at all with the idea of the humble inheriting the earth, or rather, the afterlife.  The phrase "it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven" simply means that worldly vanities are a bar to spiritual salvation. Hence, the image of little children, without artifice, prejudice  and false values   So the child in this symphony sings about food?  That's how children think.  The soloist on this occasion was Christina Landshammer, her singing illuminated by the rapturous glow of the orchestral playing around her.

In this performance, the first movement is brisk, the Schnellkappe attractive, the bells not too dominant – "their time will come" - and the overall effect is of a delicately purposeful dance. This is no clumsy Ländler, but more like a minuet danced by putti, a reference to the vision of Heaven to come.  Yet again, the passage from death to life isn't easy.  Like in many Haitink performances,  (read more ) this Freund Hein scordatura isn't distorting because he has no hold over the pure in heart. Thus the significance of the remarkably poised playing, whose very luminosity expresses  the absolute power of positive transcendance.  Freund Hein would never get it. The third movement marks a transition, a kind of purgatory in which the issues of the past are resolved.  Please read my piece, Mahler, Silence and Holy Saturday. Particularly fine string playing, its very refinement reminding us how precious and beautiful life can be.  The pace picks up, suggesting sprightly dance - another suggestion that Freund Hein isn't the tune to follow.   When the crescendi come, they feel glorious, like the blaze of a new dawn, preparing us for the existential Seligkeit which is to come.  "Seligkeit" is more than happiness: the word carries connotations of otherworldly rapture. Mahler  told Bruno Walter that the Ruhevoll reminded him of the statues of medieval saints, their hands solemnly folded across their chests. They are strong, and carved from stone, but their faces smile with blissful calm. The photo shows carved angels in the Cathedral at Bamberg.

Mahler may have "buried" Wunderhorn, though its spirit lives on in the works to come, if you listen to stillness.  In the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, he can deal with more abstract ideas returning, in the Seventh,  to a wonderfully original mix of fun and devilry,  through to the complex spirituality of the Eighth.  At one period, it was fashionable to interpret the Ninth symphony as death wish, though from what we now know of Mahler the man and the thinker, he was no maudlin neurotic.  In any case, we have Das Lied von der Erde, where the ideas of Wunderhorn reappear, so beautifully  sublimated that they can be missed.  The message there, like the message in the last movement of the Fourth, is that physical death is a door not an end in itself.  And thus through to the Tenth, where the ideas are further sublimated. The key to the Tenth lies in understanding the whole traverse of Mahler's work and the ideas within, and that key may well lie in the usually misunderstood Fourth.

And back again to Harding. In the intelligence and humility of his approach, we have echoes of Abbado, though of course the two conductors don't sound the same. What comes over for me is the basic humanity, and the respect for underlying conceptual ideas. The Orchestre de Paris isn't ancient, it was founded only 49 years ago.  Its Mahler credentials were established by Christoph Eschenbach, who headed it for ten years, when they did the whole Mahler cycle perceptively.  Paavo Järvi. who followed Eschenbach, had many specialities, but Mahler wasn't his forte.   So  with Harding, this superb orchestra will give us a lot to look forward to. 

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