Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Mahler 10 Chailly Leipzig Gewandhaus Prom 69 Mendelssohn

The performing version of Mahler's Tenth Symphony is intriguing precisely because it's unfinished. Since no-one will ever know for sure what the composer intended, an air of open-endedness hovers over it, opening possibilties in the imagination. So performances need to be created with insight into Mahler's musical processes. It means informed guesswork, so it's not a symphony for beginners. But Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra gave an astounding account at this Prom, which revealed how great the symphony's potential might have been.

Like so much of Mahler's work, the symphony involves memory, echoes of symphonies past and what they might symbolize. Two main themes circle round each other in the Adagio, one delicate, the other warmer, probing each other tentatively. Chailly doesn't dwell on nostalgia, because that can throw the rest of the piece off balance. Stand alone Adagios don't have such considerations. Sharp string figures emerge like sudden chills. The first violin persists in playing a melody, overtaken by the sudden bursts of brass, the "scream" chords. Again, Chailly stresses how they may mean more than one thing : here they came over as sudden flashes of shocking illumination. Evidently he knows the biography.

The first Scherzo mocks the delicacy of the Adagio. Swaggering grotesques, flattened horns, shrill trumpets, echoing the marches of death and disorder in earlier symphonies. The Leipzigers are far too good an orchestra to simply do crude. This orchestra's famous warm tones are put to good effect making the brutality almost hypnotically seductive. The jagged angular rhythms at last expend their energy in the crisp, unambiguous ending.

For me, the Purgatorio echoes the Wunderhorn song Das irdisches Leben : a small, plaintive cry amid larger, more dominant forces, hemmed in as it is by the two dominant Scherzi. Whatever it means, it's a bridge towards the Allegro Pesante, a stage in the passage of ideas. On the first page of this movement, Mahler pencilled the words "The Devil is dancing it with me! Madness, seize me … destroy me! Let me forget that I exist, so that I cease to be.” But a careful observer will note that Mahler then adds “dass ich ver ….” (so that I ….) and trails off without completing the idea. It’s a proposition, but this whole work is a kind of proposition.

Although this movement still feels incomplete despite years of careful adjustment by Coooke, Goldschmidt and the Matthews brothers, it's not a fault, as Chailly and the Leipzigers demonstrate. Individual instruments have their moment, without undue ornamentation. For me it felt like the spirit of the Purgatorio popping up uncowed. Playing as beautiful and as confident as this makes you appreciate how pure and clean Mahler's idiom can be, a departure from the overripe excess of so much music in his time. Chailly and his musicians make this second Scherzo feel shockingly spare and elevated.

Again, this is perceptive because at this point, Mahler was on the verge of new phases in his life. The fourth volume of Professor Henry-Louis de La Grange's monumental biography is titled "A New Life Cut Short" and is essential. Read about it HERE. What do Mahler's enigmatic markings on the score refer to? The Tenth is a guessing game, but fascinating for that very reason.

Alma described the image of the fireman's funeral in the Finale, but what did it mean to the composer on a deeper, non-literal level? Mahler didn't know the dead man personally, so there is an air of detachment, not overt emotionalism. This burial is symbolic not specific. The drumbeats are emphatic. Whatever Mahler is burying, he's moving away from it. Out of the numbness rises a new theme, led by woodwinds, rising elusively upwards. Again, the idea of fragility in the Purgatorio returns, but this time the theme grows stronger and fuller, as it's taken up by bassoons and darker brass. Even the drumstrokes become sharp rather than muffled. The new theme becomes more lyrical. Then long strident brass chords herald another new stage. Yet again, diaphanously transparent textures. The Leipzig string players are a wonder, their bowing so carefully sustained that sounds seem to glow with warmth and light.

Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra are a marriage made in heaven, so it's specially good to hear them in this symphony. Chailly's gift for Mahler didn't reach fulfilment in his years in Amsterdam, perhaps because they had the Haitink tradition firmly instilled in them. But even then Chailly impressed.

Ten years ago I heard him conduct Mahler 10 with the Royal Concertgebouw, as part of a series of Mahler performances. Earlier, Matthias Goerne had sung the Ruckert Lieder. Usually singers got home after their stint. Instead, just before the beginning of the symphony, when the lights went down, a figure slipped unobtrusively into an empty seat in a corner: Matthias Goerne in street clothes. He sat completely engrossed in the music, listening intently, his body crunched forward. Not many singers immerse themselves in a composer's non-song output, but he does, which is why his performances are so musically informed. Performing Mahler isn't a matter of learning the notes. It's a vocation.

I loved the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto too : Saleem Abboud Ashkar is wonderful, and of course no orchestra plays Mendelssohn like the Leipzig Gewandhaus. But enough from me now.
Later I'll be writing more about Chailly's Mahler and why his approach to this performance works for me. Read HERE The photo above is GM and Alma walking in the mountains above Toblach.

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