Mahler’s Second Symphony: Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Complete Their Mahler Cycle

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Rodin's bronze of Gustav Mahler.

Rodin's bronze of Gustav Mahler.

Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall: 23 November 2011
repeats and broadcasted live on ABC Classic FM on Monday 28 November

Mahler – Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection

Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy – conductor

Emma Matthews – soprano
Michelle DeYoung – mezzo-soprano

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs
Brett Weymark – chorusmaster

If a person did come to understand the true nature of reality and the universe, why we exist and die and how we exist after, if they could answer in one the curious person’s every “why?” in the endless chain, could that thought even be solidified into words? or even rarefied into music? If it could these words would at best be the ultimate “inarticulacy of the new”; or if this person glanced off some truth tangentially and put it into words they would sound like a madman or a prophet or at best a poet. Is music any more articulate than words here? Music is more articulate perhaps in its being more akin to the primary “image” of a thought before it is put into words — prose words anyway — it need not commit itself to one of the set of concrete objects or abstract concepts allowed by language. Then again I don’t want to do language a disservice since it can deal in these images, especially in poetry, and anyway music is like language in that there is a certain grammar of sounds which make musical sense; an infinite freedom amongst all the audible sounds would lead to infinite chaos, or at least just bad music. This is not how music evolved in any case, but instruments can say things outside of words’ ken (and vice versa).

The true nature of reality independent of our perception and the reconciliation of an infinite universe with a finite being and the singularity of reality, the answer to the mystery of existence, is beyond a limited physical human being. Karl Jung preferred “the divine gift of doubt” (to public, orthodox religious belief anyway). It is telling that so many composers attempted to give air to their metaphysical thoughts by writing Requiem masses, not as catholic propaganda but as their own private Weltanschauung, often as much about life as death. After all a person’s death is not an event in their life. These Requiems, fortunately, don’t pretend to answer everything. It is tempting to look at Mahler’s Second Symphony as a Requiem mass, promising life and resurrection, not least because the organ and the chorus give a spiritual sense. The Second, as one can only imagine, also had enormous success when Mahler conducted it in Basle Cathedral for the 1903 Tonkünstler Festival and he was also said to hold a certain fascination with Catholic mysticism, going so far as to convert (though of course this was mainly a political decision). But the Second is a symphony — it is primarily instrumental and it doesn’t have the continuous thread offered by the text of the mass, it gets much too free and wild for the latin text. The poems he does use aren’t the best, Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle, or even Schopenhauer’s prose when he describes the body’s end at death and our returning to what we were before we were born, are more satisfying as literature, but Mahler performs alchemy on these poems, turning them into art far beyond “aurum vulgarum”. Perhaps Mahler couldn’t share his art with a true poet like Shakespeare, or John Donne (or even Schopenhauer) at that point, though by the time he wrote the Eighth, he didn’t mind using Goethe.

Mahler gave his symphony the title “Resurrection,” and several years after completing it he even wrote out a program note for King Ludwig of Saxony, later he wrote to his wife about this program (privately)

My dear Almschi, didn’t Justi explain that my programme was written for a shallow, oafish person (you know who I mean), and that it deals with only the extraneous, superficial aspects of the work — as in the final analysis does any programme for a musical work of art. All the more in the case of this one, which is a rounded, unified whole and is no easier to explain than the world itself. — I am convinced, namely, that if God were asked to expound the programme of the “world” He created, He would be just as incapable of doing so! — At the most it would be some kind of “Revelation”, which would reveal just as little about the nature of God and life as my feeble concoction tells us about my C minor Symphony! Indeed, like all revelatory beliefs, it would inevitably lead to misunderstanding, oversimplification or coarsening, until finally the work and its creator grew distorted beyond recognition.[1]

He has a point about program music in general, the program part should be thrown out, or at least taken with a grain of salt, since the music would transcend it anyway leaving the words as a hindrance to the listener, restricting their experience of listening. I could argue something similar against descriptive titles for music beyond the traditional alphanumeric. The shape of the music itself should be enough (with technical performing notes, tempi indications etc., which are really part of the notation) to go by to interpret it and should be able to speak on its own beyond the ability of words to manifest in reality objectively the work of art’s unique soul.

There is something off-putting about resurrection. The word for me evokes exhumation and I can’t see why anyone would want to go through this just to return to a body which already lived out its usefulness to its Self and the world (besides the daisies), returned to a small material existence, returned to the state where all the problems and questions of existence are just as unanswerable as before death. It is mundane and prosaic merely to be returned to physical existence as limitedly perceiving creatures and never to transcend it. Even Jesus on his Resurrection didn’t waste much time taking off again, leaving his people, to transcend his former and Resurrected existence. Not to detract from Mahler’s symphony, it’s just a title after all, and the music isn’t at all clean, neat, tidy or cut-and-dried, and comes nowhere near triteness, while the final choral movement is beautiful and sublime, even if it is not Beethoven. We can always ignore the title and just listen with a philosophical bent (though its nice to always have a philosophical bent even if it is difficult at times in Modern Times) and this is likely what Mahler intended as he thought couldn’t count on an audience arriving at a concert with his sort of frame of mind and metaphysical sensitivity.

As for lack of neatness, the first four movements are difficult to comprehend altogether and with the final movement. There are great jolts from sometime serene or beautiful lyrical melodies, to powerful crescendos sometimes painful, sometimes frightening, sometimes exhilarating, depending on the individual listener’s reaction, and then to very earthy even catchy breeds of dance music. Mahler claims it is a unified work — though he did compose it over many years, finishing the first movement in Leipzig in 1888 under the title Todtenfeier not finishing the last movements until 1894. There is a unifying force in Mahler’s unique voice, the melodies instantly recognizable as Mahler’s with their spidery, innocent and self-conscious, yet still self-possessed quality. This quality allows them to combine contrapuntally into the strange and wonderful character of Mahler’s counterpoint — in the speech and demeanor of the melodies as much as their musicological pointwise harmonic function. These characteristics do link the vastly different themes and passages of the symphony to some extent, giving us our unified whole, but still they are great shocks. Vladimir Ashkenazy did nothing to smooth out these shocks, indeed he seemed actively to weighten them, which I believe was a good idea, but at times this reached the point of exaggeration.

The strings were not always clean, sometimes this made for an interesting texture and earthy color without muddying the clarity of the orchestra, by virtue of the very lucid and thoughtful bass playing, but other times the sound was unclear, for example the very fast falling notes with which the violins close the first movement were quite smudged, taking the anti-smooth interpretation too far. It is a bit jarring to hear this orchestra, whose lucidity and clean ensemble sound one becomes accustomed to, play a bit roughly. This did all-and-all magnify the effect of the symphony looking back, but at time during the concert it did block out some of the detail and pull me from the music.

Gustav Mahler in 1909

The horns on the other hand, which have so much presence in the score, raising their heads it seems constantly, off and onstage, or just “raising hell”, contribute much to the sound which reinforces the thematic argument of the piece. The Sydney Symphony horns outdid themselves for expression and keen musical understanding even in their large battery, as did the trumpets which are essential to coloring in the top and mussing up the purity of the horns’ calling sound. The oboes, clarinets, english horn and bassoons contributed to this success too. In fact the musicians seemed in general farther towards the individualistic end of the spectrum of orchestral playing, and when successful,  it was almost as if the flavor of their simultaneous thoughts on metaphysics, all a bit different, were heard at once. Mahler’s orchestra is about as large as in the the later Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies, much larger counting the organ pipes and chorus members, but he seems not to use it here to open the palate of his orchestration. Rather than subtly and very delicately combining colors as in say the Sixth, the large ensemble of the Second seems more to be assembled just to open up the dynamic range. And it does get painfully loud in so far as I felt my ears overloading on the sustained crescendos, which again can pull one from the music, though when a shorter burst from a loud crescendo it could be exciting and overwhelming in a positive way. The harmonic pain (the pain referred to in the sung Urlichtof the fourth movement) need not be underlined with physical ear pain, though. A great crescendo chord  is more affecting in its dissonance or lack of resolution if one can hear into it. Somehow in this way the the wholeness of the symphony was missing, and didn’t come together into the very moving experience or the believable world-on-its-own it could have been, though there were sublime moments.

The final movement was very immersive, wondrous and mysterious. Emma Matthews entered with her very gentle, seemingly fragile voice, hers is a very rounded soprano at the top, carrying without penetrating (though the lower end of her range, and the score demands some very low notes, did not carry as well). She expressed wonderfully the delicacy of a human’s state in the universe with her very living voice. Michelle DeYoung, when she sang the Urlicht seemed more a confident witness of the “Primeval  Light”, of genesis, she was relatively forward in a prophet’s kind of style, with strongly modulated phrasing making the two singers a very interesting complementary pair with an unusual character to their rapport in the last movement’s Auferstehung (with the chorus too). Singing still seated until the climax later in the movement, the chorus’ voices entered rising up from behind the orchestra (soloists in front) soft and clear rather than murmuring, with amazing control sustained throughout the movement. Their fortes sounded remarkably speech-like, very clear, uncannily as if they were speaking directly to each listener in the audience. The chorus’ varied colors and expressiveness spoke to Brett Weymark’s and the Sydney Phiharmonia Choirs’ careful rehearsing; their expression seemed to meet Ashkenazy’s interpretation of the final movement very closely. The orchestra in this movement had more clarity in that the shadowy recalls of past movement’s motives were clear in the mixture of sound.

It is sad Ashkenazy’s Mahler cycle is now over, though I am glad he finished with the Second rather than the Mahler “Deathday” performance of the Ninth last May, as wonderful as that concert was. The end of this cycle should be a good lead in to his Beethoven’s Ninth in February, which isn’t so far off now.

[1] from Gustav Mahler, Letters to his Wife, trans. Antony Beaumont.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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