“Wouldn’t You Just Die….

… without Mahler?” Asks a fragile character of the eponymous heroine of Willy Russell’s play/film ‘Educating Rita’. So fragile, she promptly takes an overdose. Mahler’s music tends to attract some interesting opinions!

The arrival of a new year (HNY to all readers by the way, may you be blessed with happiness), inevitably leads to review goal setting and  sometimes leads to wider reflection on questions like ‘what am i doing here?’, ‘What difference am i making?’, ‘What progress have i made through life, and where will it take me?’   – or maybe even ‘.. and where will I take it?’ (assertiveness mode!). So this post is about reflection, Mahler, general and specific thoughts on recorded classical music, and my own resolutions.

I’m not sure why, maybe it had something to do with the above,  but I had a compulsion to end the first day of the year with another listen of  Mahler’s 6th symphony (in A minor – also sub-titled ‘Tragic’ –  to give it it’s full moniker).

I think the answer to the heroine’s question above is ‘No. But I can see why you ask the question.’ And if you listen to this work, you might see why it draws me back at regular intervals. It is about life. A Hero’s Life, but also yours, mine, a friend’s: who knows? Here’s why it draws me in, and along the way a bit of insight into how to explore this type of music.

It’s a shame that many people are intimidated or alienated by ‘classical music’ with its associated connotations of snobbery or pretentiousness. Even the term is horribly misleading but sadly, nothing better has yet come along. To me I suppose it means a genre that is enduring, regardless of fashion and fad. Don’t forget that many contemporary (‘pop’?) musicians explore it and often recycle bits of it into their own original work! Here’s one for starters: Muse and Rachmaninov. Find the track that weaves a theme from Rach’s famous 2nd Piano Concerto on ‘Origins Of Symmetry’.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was an interesting character. Born a Jew, a convert to Roman Catholicism and eventually a probable atheist. An intense, bird-like figure who was probably quite hard to deal with – like most gifted people – and a man who combined the work of a traditional musician and orchestral conductor of other people’s music with hiding himself away in a shed each summer at his holiday retreat in the Dolomites to work on his own music. He married the beautiful but hopelessly unfaithful Alma Schindler who returned his adoration with numerous affairs with many of Vienna’s movers and shakers of the time. He fathered two girls, one of whom died of scarlet fever in childhood, whilst he himself was diagnosed with an incurable heart condition which eventually helped claim him at the age of 51.

The Sixth Symphony is often considered as being ‘autobiographical’. He composed in 1907, after the death of his daughter and about the time of his terminal diagnosis. It might be or might not be, but there is definitely a life’s journey set out in the four movements as lived by some kind of fictional ‘hero’. A Google search will quickly reveal the many interpretations it has spawned.

The other thing worth noting is that he was a rather indecisive creative and revised the scoring (as many did/do), but most importantly, the order of the second and third movements were swapped. Which means you might hear it one way or another. Does it matter? Well, it’s highly unusual in a classical work but the answer is yes. And no. It changes the shape and dramatic impact of the work but life and a recollection of it is seldom linear, so find an order that you prefer and don’t worry any more about it. It’s a long and demanding work to listen to. To begin with, play bits, whole movements, halves, or just until your concentration wanders. A technique you can apply to  all classical music. It’s not meant to be listened to with gritted teeth.

The first movement depicts a vibrant, energetic youth through a thrusting marching tempo. This is followed by the arrival of love (portrayed by a sweeping motif in what has come to be known as the ‘Alma Theme’), then taking in the scenery along the journey evoked by shimmering strings punctuated by mountain cowbells: one that will always remind me of an afternoon I once spent in the mountains above Innsbruck one Summer many years ago. Then follows EITHER (see above) a movement that continues the forward impetus of the first movement which then moves onto the arrival of children and their tottering first steps and such family fun that accompanies OR a serene, beautiful and poised interlude of restful peace, calm and happiness punctuated by a wistfulness that asks both if this happiness can last – or maybe harking back to a time when life seemed so simple and contented.

The opening  of the final movement dispels that mood more or less at a stroke, immediately sweeping a dark cloud over the sunlight with a sense of foreboding. This is one of the most evocative soundscapes I have ever heard and still makes me literally quiver every time I hear it. How does music do this???  It also exemplifies why there are times when I just can’t play Mahler and I have to walk away from him. This movement is ‘The End’ and the path that leads to it.  The hero is eventually felled by three hammer blows (literal or figurative? Your choice.) that brings him to his knees. The blows are palpable and incredibly dramatic.  So dramatic and symbolic in fact that the third blow is mostly omitted from performance. Mahler removed it from the score because, it is said, of what the hammer blows represented for him (he was incredibly superstitious after all): the first being the death of his daughter, The second his medical diagnosis. So the third inevitably would be…….. Now you can see why he removed it! And, when you reach the end you see how his view of life’s end had changed since he wrote his Second symphony (the ‘Resurrection’, whose title probably tells you all you need to know, although it too is worth a listen as a compelling musical experience). I won’t spoil it further.

It’s a life and I guess you are invited to compare it with your own.  New Year is as good a time as any to reflect. And if you’re still on holiday, you’ll have time to listen to 80-ish minutes of music!!

Those who don’t listen to much/any classical music will be immediately thrown by the next step: the Amazon or Spotify search results throwing up a myriad of performances to choose from. I’ll give you some help. I’ve not heard every version but I have heard a number, based on recommendations I’ve picked up over time.

The usual approach towards choosing a classical recording holds true here as much as anywhere. Here are my golden rules:

  1. Price is no indicator whatsoever of the artistic merit of a recording or the satisfaction it will give you.
  2. Generally speaking, newer recordings will pick up more nuances than older ones. It matters with composers like Mahler whose scoring is very detailed, inventive and at times unconventional (e.g. the cowbells mentioned above!) so try and establish when the (original  – not remastered) recording was made.
  3. For the most part, the current catalogue will offer you recordings made from the 60’s to the present day. Older recordings still available are usually there for a reason. They are either vital documents in the history of recorded music and/or ‘benchmarks’ that all subsequent recordings end up being compared with. They are often also surprisingly good recordings. Maybe not pin sharp but compensated for in terms of drama, impact or special interest.
  4. Bear in mind that classical recordings are vehicles for performers rather than the composers, who are mostly six foot under. They are made for all sorts of reasons: mostly contractual. Sometimes the contract is about a conductor/orchestra/ensemble/artist desperate to put their own view of the work across. Sometimes it’s just to record a work alongside something else as a bit of a ‘bulk’ deal. You’d be surprised how some conductors avoid specific works because they just don’t relate to them: Otto Klemperer, the garrulous and eccentric German conductor who was a personal friend of Mahler’s and bequeathed one of the finest performances of  the ‘Resurrection’ mentioned above (on the EMI label), would not conduct the First Symphony, because he simply didn’t like it. So beware! No one is good at everything!
  5. Recording quality, location and ambiance, whether the performance is live or studio-recorded, the conductor and the orchestra are all variables that record companies love so that you end up being compelled to buy several versions of the same work. And with this one in particular, you have the previously mentioned issue of running order; although programming your media player accordingly gets around this easily enough. Streaming services are a godsend in trying before you buy, if indeed you buy at all. You’d be surprised how much difference there can be, and it can often be the difference between a work leaving you cold or transfixing you. If you don’t believe me, listen to BBC Radio 3’s ‘Building A Library’ feature which exists for precisely this reason. Not only will you come to hear and appreciate the differences, you will also pick up a heap of interesting background on the work, the performers etc etc, that will stand you in good stead if you decide to do just that and ‘build a library’, whatever your taste is.
  6. And now, my recommended choices for this work in a loose order of preference, although any of them will be worth your time. I’ve given just enough detail (Conductor, Orchestra, Label) for you to locate the performance on Amazon or Spotify rather than give the complete reference. If this fails, contact me here and I’ll do my best to help you track it down:
    1. Claudio Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO), Deutsche Grammophon (DG)
    2. Pierre Boulez, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO), DG
    3. John Barbirolli, BPO, EMI (same orchestra as Abbado but about 30 years older). And if you hear anything on here that sounds like wheezing, that’s exactly what it is. ‘Glorious John’  was a serial wheezer and the mics sometimes picked it up. There are other culprits too! Funny, but sometimes distracting. Incidentally, the other game is to pick the pianists who hum along to the music they are making. I’ll name names if anyone wants me to.
    4. George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra, Sony Classics
    5. Mariss Jansons, London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), LSO Live
    6. There are many others. Some are curiosities, some are just not quite in the first rank, but if you are a fan of Herbert Von Karajan, Simon Rattle, Leonard Bernstein, etc etc, by all means give them a listen.

So, those are some of my thoughts on Mahler and choosing classical music recordings.

Finally then, my own New Year resolutions are: lose weight. I have a target and a timeline but that’s all you need to know.  Find a new professional challenge to inspire and absorb me (ditto), and find the relationship I have been looking for to make my life truly complete. I have a feeling I’ve already made some good headway with that one!

Hope you enjoyed the deviation! As always, comments welcome.