Wednesday, 9 September 2009

More on Chailly's Mahler 10 Prom

Interesting performances grow in your mind. I thought I knew Mahler’s 10th pretty well, but Chailly’s performance at the Proms keeps generating new ideas. Another good reason to steer clear of “instant” opinions.

The Tenth feels like a departure, for of course every new work is a new venture. But it’s not a departure into death as commonly assumed, but something quite unusual even in Mahler terms.

The lyricism in the Adagio harks back to the Adagietto of the 5th Symphony, which was also a tribute to Alma. It also evokes the wide, open landscapes Mahler loved so much. These symbolize the limitless panoramas so many of the symphonies open out towards – “eternal light”.

When the Adagio is performed as a stand alone, it doesn’t matter so much what a conductor puts into it. But when it’s performed as part of the wider symphony, it needs to be shaped by wider considerations. Since the Tenth is a sketch, not a completion, it’s not going to be fully orchestrated, so the Adagio needs a lighter, more elusive touch than if it were a straightforward love song.

Right from the start it’s apparent that there are two voices here, the dark rich one and the light, beautiful string theme. Obviously, it may be a reference to Mahler’s marriage but what’s significant is that the “scream” chords” could refer to different things. Are they cries of pain, or sudden flashes of knowledge? Either possibility works even though the actual notes remain the same.

So this is a departure for Mahler on another level. All along what stands out in his music is the idea of an individual, usually pitted against vast forces. Of course dual themes occur everywhere in nearly all music but what’s interesting fort me in Mahler 10th is how duality is embedded into the symphony’s structure. The Purgatorio bridges two Scherzi. Is this an echo of the two Nachtmusiks in Mahler 7 ? Conventional middle movements can be heard as a climax but in the Seventh, the middle movement separates two different stages in the journey towards the glowing Finale. Incidentally the most wonderful performance of the Seventh I have ever heard was Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus. He placed the mandolin in the centre of the orchestra, not tucked away in a corner, so the “lone voices” were absolutely at the heart of the music, not some peripheral detail. There’s a reason!

I’ve written about the Purgatorio below and how it may represent the frailty of a needy child who dies before he can be fed. Song is so central to any understanding of Mahler that it’s not a coincidence. What was Mahler thinking about, returning to an early song at this time in his life, when he was, like the starving child, put aside by a woman who had other things on her mind ?

So like the Nachtmusiks, the Scherzi represent different stages. The first mocks the Adagio, but the second is altogether more complex: this was the part Mahler left most incomplete. See what I’ve written below about his markings and the prepositional nature of the section. It can never be completed because Mahler himself may not have known. In this performance, Chailly creates the sketch-like nature of the section so it really does feel incomplete, which may seem a bit shocking, like entering a room to find the floor opens onto the sky.

That’s why I think it is so important that an orchestra as good as the Leipzig Gewandhaus is central to performance. A really good orchestra can suggest sounds out of silence, creating reverberating echoes than span voids. The Leipzig strings are famous for their luminous, rich sheen : so the beauty of their playing registers on the mind even when they aren’t actually playing. Since the strings create so much of the “Alma” theme such playing warms the music even if it’s loosely orchestrated. Like perfume, an invisible presence.

So here we have two voices in the symphony, not one. What did Mahler mean when he wrote on the pages of the “Fireman’s funeral”, that only Alma knew what it meant? For once Alma wasn’t telling. It must have been something quite deep, not simply a reaction to a stranger’s funeral. But the point is that the composer is no longer a lone figure, like the hero in the First Symphony. GM and Alma now stand together looking out of their hotel room, down at the city below them.

Daniel Harding’s recording is by far more attuned to the “Devil “ theme and the spiky, edgy anxiety in the Scherzi. His “fireman’s funeral” is truly horrific, the drumstrokes devastate. Chailly’s version isn’t nearly so dark, though both lead to the same transformational, transcending resolution. I’ve been listening to them both side by side, and it’s amazing what that reveals. It’s like hearing the same story from both sides. Harding expresses a Mahler perspective but Chailly emphasizes the role of Alma.

Hence Mahler’s references all over the manuscript. “To live for you, to die for you” and the poignant “Almschi”. He may not have finished the symphony but he had no illusions that it had no meaning.

There are several different performing versions of this symphony and they keep evolving, which is a good thing, because the very process involved understanding and informed choice. There are elaborate versions and bland : on balance Cooke 3 perhaps works best because it's sensitive to the idiom without attaching too much. I have a weakness for the Joe Wheeler version which is the most spartan of all, particularly as both performances I've heard are awful. But what would the Tenth be without Alma?
PLEASE see the other posts on Mahler 10 here (two on Chailly, two on Harding)) ! and also on other Mahler works/I'm "downloading" a lifdetime of listening.

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