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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

Symphony #2 "Auferstehung"

Mimi Cortese, soprano
Lucretia West, contralto
Vienna State Academy Chamber Choir
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Hermann Scherchen
Millennium Classics MCD80353 49:39 + 44:40 Recorded June 1958
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Summary for the Busy Executive: White-hot.

I first heard Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony some time in the Sixties, during the final push for the composer's acceptance among the general public. I believe the recording was Kubelík's. It was my first Mahler symphony (I had already heard and loved Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen), and I wish I could say that I embraced it immediately. However, quite frankly, it bored me to tears. It seemed so… obvious, so late-nineteenth-century (never my favorite period), so clichéd. Then I hit the last movement and the choral entrance, and it knocked me upside the head. I decided to stick with it until the rest of the symphony did the same. As I write this, forty years later, I've signed up to sing that very chorus with my local symphony this year. I learned Mahler's symphonies in the rush of enthusiasm for the composer that swept over the classical world and has never abated – #2, then #3 and 4 (both of which overwhelmed me and converted me to Mahler), then 1, 9, 6, 5, 7, and finally #8. When I was young, the two great Romantic symphonists were probably Beethoven and Brahms. I strongly suspect that Mahler has since replaced Brahms as Second Best Symphonist in the general public's estimation.

Before launching into the review, I'll give my usual caveat. I haven't heard all the recordings out there. From what I've read, I gather the benchmark interpretations are Walter and Klemperer (both from around the Sixties), Bernstein's first with the New York Philharmonic, Kubelík, and Rattle. Of these, I've not heard the Rattle. I confess that the main attraction of the Rattle for me would be its soloists: Janet Baker and Arleen Augér. So far immune to Rattle's charms as a Mahler conductor, I don't think him horrible by any means, but I don't hear anything special in him. I've also not heard Barbirolli in this work, probably a very serious omission. Of the ones I've heard, I most like Walter and Kubelík. Klemperer I find just plain too slow, Bernstein too sentimental. Walter achieves the feat of making this most self-conscious of symphonies sound naturally lyrical. Kubelík comes across as more intellectual without loss of warmth. My first CD of this symphony was Sinopoli's account, bought in a rush of enthusiasm for this conductor which has largely waned. For me, Sinopoli is primarily a "singing" conductor and a begetter of gorgeous moments. However, I need a stronger sense of the symphony's architecture than Sinopoli gives me.

The symphony, though it represents a significant formal advance on the already-wonderful First, nevertheless shows Mahler as a comparative learner, especially when we consider the symphonies from the Third on. The formal model of the first and last movements – Beethoven's Ninth, by way of Wagner's Walküre and Götterdämmerung – is not only pretty obvious, but heavily leaned-on, both for its rhetorical progression within movements and also for the shape of the themes. One sees this most clearly in the first movement, with the opening and its charged atmosphere, bare textures, and "chords with holes in them," generated by the familiar Beethovenian shapes and rhythms. The end of the first movement takes its rhetorical shape from the conclusion of the Ninth's opening movement, with its emphatic stamping out of the primary theme. Aside from the use of the chorus and the opening din of the last movement, one also finds there Mahler's recall of themes from previous movements, as Beethoven had done before him, although Mahler isn't content merely to recall, but to recast them in a brand-new symphonic argument. Furthermore, in previous movements, Mahler foreshadows the final "resurrection" hymn – a wonderful extension of the "recall" idea. As one continues to listen to the work (it took me years), one notes these hints (for they are no more than that). Mahler never calls obvious attention to them, but they certainly evince his concern for and ability to get unity over a very long span. For all its length, this symphony really is a mighty arch, or at least I believe Mahler wanted it as such.

In light of the above, Mahler's Second poses a major interpretive difficulty in that it can easily seem a forcing together of two different works. It's pretty clear that the first, fourth, and fifth movements constitute a "natural" progression from darkness to light and operate at the same level of emotional intensity. Mahler recognized the problem and specified a "great pause of at least five minutes" between the first and second movements to give the audience time to cleanse their mental palates. I put quotes around "natural," since at least some writers have found the last movement the odd duck. Mahler himself authorized another "great pause" (although it's not in the score) between the fourth and last movements and went so far as to call this "the natural break." Today, however, performers seldom observe either pause, most likely because no one feels it necessary. I regard the Ländler second and the satirical third movements as the sticking points. The conductor must come up with a convincing fit of these movements. This to me marks the great interpretations, and Scherchen definitely passes this particular test.

However, it's not a particularly "literally faithful" interpretation. I followed the CD with the Dover edition of the score. Even allowing for different editions, I note that Scherchen continually deviates from the tempo, dynamic, and character indications on the page. Furthermore, the playing is pretty scrappy, a couple of very short steps from a read-through. Even so, this ranks as one of the most compelling accounts I've heard.

In the first movement, Scherchen emphasizes contrasts and tends toward extremes. The louds are very loud, the softs very soft, the slows very slow, the fasts bunny-quick. The score, of course, suggests a strategy like this, but Scherchen takes it further than others. You can hear this from the get-go. Scherchen's account lacerates. The darks overwhelm everything else. The brighter, more relaxed passages in the movement are curiously distant and unemotional, like reading a Paris guidebook rather than actually walking through the city. By the end, the movement engulfs us in an angry despair. I think it a testament to Mahler's music that it can absorb a range of interpretation.

Most other accounts of the second movement depict a pastoral innocence. Scherchen throws that over. He not only takes to heart Mahler's instruction "don't hurry," but his Ländler is downright cloddish. One can barely take it seriously. Furthermore, Scherchen presses the contrasting minor idea so much that he relates it to the storm and stress of the first movement. The return of the bucolic main idea becomes extremely difficult to take on its face. Scherchen doesn't work for a positive innocence, but for a negative ignorance. It's like listening to someone who doesn't want to know about "all the bad things in the world" and watches TV wrestling instead. Scherchen depicts one reaction, unsatisfactory as it is, to life's pain. The third movement, based on the satirical Wunderhorn song "Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fish," Scherchen treats as the cynic's reaction – ultimately, equally unsatisfactory. In the song, the saint preaches to the fish to mend their immoral ways, and (no surprise) the result is what you'd expect from preaching to fish: nothing changes. Again, Scherchen adopts a tempo slower than the norm and thus turns the music into a lumpen -cartoon. It's the aural equivalent of the hippo ballet in Disney's Fantasia – heavy and delicate at the same time. It's a funny reading – one of the rare times that one actually laughs during a musical performance – and you understand how this music could have shocked its first audiences. Mahler is no longer in the frame of his official Great Composer portrait, but someone incredibly alive and relevant.

Having presented two unsatisfactory answers to the first movement, Mahler and Scherchen prepare us for heaven. I should mention at this point that I haven't a religious bone in my body. Unfortunately, the religious answer is as unsatisfactory to me as any other. However, I didn't write this symphony, and I must say that while I listen, the music moves me Mahler's way, in part because he's neither simplistic nor ignorant of the difficulties. A very complex mind believes this, and that impresses me, even if I'm not convinced when the music stops. Mahler achieves the effect of positive innocence in the fourth movement, a setting of the Wunderhorn poem "Urlicht," which presages the theme of resurrection. After the contrapuntal complication of the scherzo, the bare entry of a single alto voice and the music moving mainly in chords in effect wash away the chatter of the intellect. Scherchen aims at rapture, through a slow tempo aiming at timelessness, but his alto soloist, Lucretia West, does him in. Her voice is annoyingly reedy, with a fast vibrato and intonation slightly under pitch. I, for one, can't bear to listen to her to the end of her phrases. On the other hand, the orchestra does fine. This is a case where the justness of conception and of the means to carry it out go awry due to one slightly wrong choice.

Mahler's famous remark about a symphony containing the world applies equally well to the finale – lasting roughly 35 minutes. I know of no previous symphonic or concerto movement of such complexity, assurance, and control. The assurance and control, of course, are as important as the complexity. Mahler raises the bar here. He does nothing less than recap and compress the journey we've already taken. As I've already mentioned, themes from previous movements appear in new contexts, building blocks in a brand-new argument. It's fairly important, I think, that the playing here be especially well-articulated and the textures very clear, since Mahler conducts his argument in his characteristically super-contrapuntal fashion. Unfortunately, the Vienna State Opera Orchestra disappoints. The brass sound strained whenever they're asked to press. The fanfare fantasia before the choral entrance even includes clams. I know it's really the VPO, but these guys (and they are guys, aren't they?) seem to go about their business pretty casually. Somehow, however, Scherchen gets it to work. He handles the sweep of the argument with great assurance. It's a very poetic reading, to me highly reminiscent of, say, Furtwängler's Beethoven. The details matter less than the successful creation of an atmosphere. Again, however, it's a reading of extremes, especially where tempi and dynamics are concerned, and this contributes to the energy of Scherchen's account. Articulation may be shaky, but Scherchen and the Vienna hit all the important marks superbly well. Even with its flaws, it remains the most physically exciting readings of this movement I've heard. The choir entrance (with solid low B Flat Majors from the second basses) merely caps an already glorious outcome.

The sound is nothing to write home about, but it's acceptable.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz