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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

Cleveland Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
Decca 458902-2 2CDs 58:55 + 41:11
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Glorious. And then there's the Hartmann.

Perhaps I've met with extraordinarily good luck, but I have never heard anything less than a very good recording of this symphony. I've not heard all the recordings out there, by any means, but the ones I have include Abravanel, Bernstein's first with the New York Philharmonic, Szell, Kubelík, Haitink, Walter (1961), Horenstein (1966 – I thank Deryk Barker for putting me on to this one), Gielen, Bernstein with the Berlin, Abbado, and Boulez. Of these, the Szell, Haitink, and Horenstein (not necessarily in that order) are for me benchmarks of interpretation.

However, I'm probably also not a Perfect Mahlerite. That is, for me, the symphonies are not primarily quasi-religious testaments. I flatter myself that I listen to them mainly as music, rather than as spiritual texts. After all, there are a lot of God-hungry artists, but only one Mahler, and Mahler wrote music of such individuality that we go to the trouble to invent eponymous adjectives for it. To some extent, this is undoubtedly "anti-Mahler" himself, and I probably suffer from an adverse reaction to most of the stuff I read. As most critics don't seem to get beyond the surface of Richard Strauss, most sink immediately into the "subtext" of Mahler. All this is just to say that Strauss wasn't a Philistine and Mahler had immense craft, and for a change perhaps we should try to talk about these things.

I find most important in accounts of Mahler's works a convincing "narrative" line. "Narrative" here has little to do with a literal story, but more with how the music unfolds. Over the years, it's become apparent to me that this kind of forward impulse – the intensity behind phrases and notes – is heightened by great ensemble playing, which means that both rhythmic sharpness and textural clarity assume great importance. However, the two are not ends in themselves, but the means to the coherence of the movement. There can be beautiful Mahler with no impulse behind it which interests me less than something rougher (the nits I pick in Abbado and Boulez). On the other side of the scale, as in the Bernstein-Berlin recording, one can encounter a "go-for-emotional-broke" with every phrase so that the shape of the whole dissolves into goo fit only for wallowing in. Given the choice between a great performance in less-than-great sound and a great performance in decent stereo, I'll probably take the latter, although, for my money, no recorded performance of Kindertotenlieder surpasses Horenstein's 1928 Berlin Philharmonic recording with Rehkemper. On the whole, however, part of Mahler's glory to me lies in the sounds he invents.

Just for the hell of it, I decided to follow the Dover edition of the score as I listened to the Dohnányi CD under review. Dohnányi apparently uses a different edition of the text (although I can't tell you which one). Still, I wanted to see how much I could glean of the relationship between print and realization: How much of the spirit resides in the letter?

Mahler's scores are thick with detail – not only are phrases shaped and filigreed with every known notational mark (although there's less of that in the Ninth) – but the composer provides detailed instructions in German at the very passages referred to as to what the effect should be, how to achieve it, and so on. Mahler addresses not only the conductor with these remarks, but the players as well, which I think significant. In a really great Mahler performance, players and conductors collaborate – everybody works to maximum capacity. I've read of a British orchestral instrumentalist feeling "naked" when he played Mahler. The orchestras may be, if not necessarily "enormous," then pretty big, and yet Mahler seldom plays up volume. Mahler asks for the numbers mainly to change colors and to generate a dazzling, clear counterpoint-on-counterpoint. He resorts a lot to momentary chamber groups within the large ensemble. Unlike the frequent case with Strauss, the orchestra player can't often hide behind a wall of sound. With a great orchestra, the conductor seldom has to clarify texture, as long as the players follow the markings in the score. Instead, he must make clear the narrative thrust, and given the length of many of Mahler's movements, this becomes a difficult necessity.

Although Mahler found his voice early and indeed re-used themes and ideas, I've never felt that he repeated himself. For me, each symphony differs from its fellows. The composer keeps extending his range and finding new uses for familiar things. The Ninth, however, is the only one of his works where I feel him lingering in the past – in this case, the immediate past of Das Lied von der Erde. The musical language, particularly the reliance on "oriental" pentatonicism and much of the orchestral sound, seems to comment on the earlier work. Already by the Tenth, we get something different again. In Das Lied we get symphonic songs. The musical tension in that work culminates one of Mahler's earliest symphonic concerns – how to base the open, "becoming" form of the symphony on the closed form of songs. In Das Lied, Mahler opens up the song up to, but not crossing, the line into symphony with vocal commentary. The songs, despite their scale, retain their individual arcs – really the extension of a song like Schubert's "Ganymed." In the Ninth, Mahler uses much the same language to create a genuine symphony.

Many commentators, at least since Berg and Redlich, have found the work "death-obsessed," strongly related to Mahler's perception of his illness. Certainly, the musical connections with Das Lied – particularly with "Der Einsame im Herbst" and "Der Abschied" – reinforce this view. I've nothing against it, and three cheers if it helps people penetrate this wonderful work. I know too little of Mahler's life to have a definite opinion. However, the Tenth Symphony – an entity really only available since Cooke's first realization in the 1960s – sows doubt in my mind. The triumph in that symphony makes me wonder whether the fatalism of Das Lied and by extension the Ninth stems from the poetry Mahler set or from Mahler himself.

In general, the emotional arc of the symphony has the family look of Tchaikovsky's Sixth (a work which, by the way, Mahler detested) – a "struggle" first movement, a "relaxed" second, a frenetic third, and a slow finale. I don't really hear "death obsession" in the first movement – in other words, what Alban Berg heard. To me, the movement is as much "about" the intense contemplation of the natural world as anything else. We hear Mahler's musical symbols of nature – the "shivering" strings, the slow procession of single notes from the principal harp, the fanfares of nature awake (going all the way back to the First Symphony). We also have that intense pentatonic counterpoint from Das Lied. This symphony is, if anything, contrapuntal, and the first movement a stunning exemplar. On the one hand, pentatonic counterpoint is pretty simple to write. After all, if you just press down the black keys of a piano (which make up the usual pentatonic scales), you already have something that sounds pretty good. But with Mahler, it's just never that simple. We certainly have music pentatonically-based, for the most part, but which possesses the magical ability to modulate anywhere, through the chromatic alteration of a single note or even enharmonically. Pentatonic music usually doesn't modulate. It stays where it is harmonically – like one of those drinking-cups that don't tip over – and for that reason, it can't all by itself hold interest for the nearly half-an-hour the movement runs. Pentatonic music is, in a sense, anti-symphonic. Unless the composer gives it a kick, it doesn't "go anywhere." However, Mahler also includes a chromatic strain to the work which provides both contrast and movement. Chromatic music goes far and fast. Its danger is that one never the gets the feeling of "arriving" anywhere. Extreme chromaticism tends to undermine a listener's sense of coherence. Conductor and orchestra must find a way to reconcile these two elements, for that becomes the main musical issue of the movement. Mahler's contemplation of nature is never completely untroubled. Nature soothes and quiets the restless heart.

The sheer playing of the Cleveland runs at such a high level, it creates its own difficulty: one may not be able to get past the surface beauty to the emotional subtext. Furthermore, Dohnányi portrays emotion like a patrician. Intensity is always accompanied by analytical distance. Dohnányi doesn't try to become the composer as much as he tries to comment on or criticize (in its non-pejorative sense) the composer's work. This results in an individual point of view, one which tries to embrace both the psychology of a work and its position within a culture. Plenty of listeners don't like this kind of distance, and sometimes I find Dohnányi's readings way off the mark – like the critic in love more with his commentary than with the work itself. On the other hand, I've never been indifferent to Dohnányi's readings – love 'em or hate 'em. I happen to love this. Dohnányi's distance and the beautiful, unearthly playing of the Cleveland Orchestra give a noble, life-affirming quality to this movement very rare in my experience with the work. I usually hear something more desperate and, at the end, more exhausted. That's certainly one way to read the work, but I like Dohnányi's way as well.

The second movement apparently confuses some critics. As late as 1970, for example, well into the Mahler revival, Philip Barford wrote in the BBC Music Guide to Mahler's symphonies:

The next movement, a tedious and far too expansive Ländler, does not rivet the listener's attention like the first. Its main thematic substance is a trivial commonplace of the Viennese idiom, and it is not redeemed by the burden of development it has to bear. The massive extension of the movement, through derivative and subsidiary material, seems an artistic miscalculation.

God only knows what Barford was listening to. For me, this counts as one of the most bizarre movements in all of Mahler, and that's saying something. The composer marks the movement with the direction "Somewhat clumsy and very coarse." The first idea is so obviously trivial, considered all by itself, it would take a very thick head indeed to think that Mahler hadn't a clue. Very quickly the composer puts this slightly annoying idea to serve not merely satire, but the depiction of a dream world. Many conductors emphasize the "clumsy" and "coarse," Dohnányi the "somewhat." I especially enjoy Mahler's use of extreme, side-slipping modulations – of the kind Prokofieff later built a career on. The basic technique stems from Wagner, and Strauss extended it. But Strauss often goes for the harmonic reach only to return quickly to the original key – a kind of musical yo-yo that always finds its way back to the hand which cast it. Mahler, to the contrary, uses the technique as a symphonist – to transform the given into something new, to fly to a new place. At times, the music seems like it's been through a taffy pull or looking at its own reflection in a fun-house mirror. Because the Cleveland Orchestra plays so incredibly in tune, the freshness of these modulations hits the listener more forcibly, without inflating the emotional content. The movement ends with a brilliantly poetic feat of orchestration, what has always struck me as surrealism before the fact – a desolate landscape riddled with ghosts. I'm sure some critics might object to Dohnányi's restraint. I, however, like the elegance of it. For me, he arrives at the right place with less strain and hysteria than most.

The third movement, "Rondo. Burleske," is almost the same kind of movement as the second, but on amphetamines. That is, it takes essentially very simple, extremely brief ideas and betrays that simplicity, this time through a virtuosic contrapuntal display and a breakneck tempo. It takes the character of a very quick march – a kind of commentary on the more grotesque Wunderhorn songs like "Revelge," but the brilliance of the orchestration also suggests the first and fourth parts of Das Lied. One also finds a transformation of a march idea in the Third Symphony, here weirdly distorted almost to a polka, which again shows Mahler's ability to build on and extend his earlier work and the unity this gives to his symphonic cycle.

Early commentators had trouble with this movement as well. It's not that they couldn't figure out what Mahler was doing so much as why he wanted to do it. Some had criticized Mahler as a "homophonic" composer (Mahler's main musical criticism of Tchaikovsky, incidentally). But they weren't really listening. In this movement, Mahler rubs their noses in very complex counterpoint indeed. In fact, if you consider the lines separately, their contrapuntal fit probably wouldn't occur to you. He dedicated the movement to "my brothers in Apollo," and the main character direction is "sehr trotzig" (very stubbornly or defiantly). Obviously, Mahler writes it in part as satire, but the satire surpasses the thing satirized – as if one were to write a great string quartet on themes by Kenny G. As if that weren't enough, Mahler inserts a slow, yearning passage not entirely free of grotesqueries, and, enveloped by music racing like demons, becomes even more enigmatic. Dohnányi again reads the passage more at a distance than other interpretations I've heard. What comes to stand out are the strange little slides and out-of-tunes that frame the passage and serve as transitions from the quick to the slow and back again. They give the music an unease that standard Romantic yearning doesn't cover – almost primeval, like a forest out of Grimm. The whole movement reminds me a bit of a grinning skull, an anticipation of Expressionism. One might expect a pristine performance from the Cleveland, but Dohnányi counters expectations. Not that it's sloppy, mind you, but it's not presented as a mere contrapuntal exercise either. "Defiance," I think, provides the emotional key. The account is manically defiant – Cagney in Public Enemy – without losing control.

The adagio finale is textually simple and emotionally complicated. It assumes the character of a funeral song – tears and farewells, including the "Farewell" ("Lebe wohl") motif from Beethoven's Piano Sonata #26. Of all the four movements, I think this the most death-obsessed, but not necessarily Mahler's death. Musically, it's unusual, even for Mahler. Despite magnificent interludes – one for winds, one for brass, one for full orchestra – strings dominate, and one doesn't normally associate Mahler with the sound of strings. At least, I don't, remembering mostly woodwind passages. For all that, the string writing is magnificent, and then one realizes that it really doesn't differ all that much from the string parts in Mahler's other works. Here, Mahler lets it take center stage.

The movement's main idea comes from Kindertotenlieder, the song "Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen" ("I often think they have only gone out"), at the lines "Wir holen sie ein auf jenen Höh'n / Im Sonnenschein! / Der Tag ist schön auf jenen Höh'n!" ("We go to meet them on those heights in the sunshine. The day is beautiful on those heights!"). The poet imagines that his children have not died but are merely playing outside. This movement laments Mahler's own children as much as anyone. Dohnányi and the Cleveland give a heart-breaking account, all the more heart-breaking for its beauty and the apparent simplicity of delivery. One never feels that someone shoves an Interpretation with a capital "I" down one's throat. It seems to break into spontaneous singing – a gorgeous end to a great work.

Someone will surely ask whether Dohnányi's is an "essential" performance, rather than merely interesting. I can't answer except to say that it's essential to me. I say this having thought his account of the Symphony #4 nothing special, so I don't believe I qualify as a rabid fan. However, along with (in no particular order) the Horenstein, Walter, Szell, and Haitink, I think he provides a penetrating, individual take on the Ninth – elegant, but passionate as well in its way. It's also a performance incredibly well-played and recorded.

Following the Ninth's adagio with the Hartmann Symphony #2 may constitute unusual cruelty to Hartmann. He is an heir to Mahler, but how many composers come up with music as incisive and as individual as Mahler? Compared to the Ninth's finale, Hartmann's brief one-movement symphony comes over as just so much noodling around. I can easily appreciate the considerable craft and the seriousness of it, but I eventually begin to wonder whether it will ever "break into blossom." It always promises something, then steps back or breaks off, without ever catching fire. Needless to say (I'll say it anyway), it receives as good and committed a performance as it's likely to get. I wish I liked it more. Hartmann is a genuine hero of our times, worthy of admiration, and a composer who obviously knows his stuff. I just don't connect to the music.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz