Salzburg Festival (3):Gielen’s Extraordinary Mahler

22/08/2013

 Salzburg Festival (3) – Mahler: SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg, Michael Gielen (conductor). Groβes Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 21.8.2013 (MB)

Mahler: Symphony no.6 in A minor

This was one of the most extraordinary Mahler performances I have heard. Whether it was the best Sixth I have heard I really cannot say; league tables are in any case not so much of dubious value as of none. (Would that our political masters might understand that.) That said, the only rivalling memory I have is of Pierre Boulez conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in this symphony in 2007. ‘Modernist’ Mahler in both cases, one might say, and there lies a grain of truth in that description; however, the interpretations lay poles apart, leading one to doubt the utility of an all-too-easy designation. In any case, how could a Mahler performance that was not simply perverse not be modernist in character? It would be almost akin to saying that it was not Mahlerian.

Boulez’s harrowing performance, however, stood closer to what one might have expected than Michael Gielen’s, equally harrowing account. Gielen has never been one to follow received wisdom; his Beethoven offers one of the very few genuinely refreshing standpoints upon the greatest symphonic cycle of all, not ‘new’ for the sake of it, but because he has harnessed his formidable musical intelligence to the music. What might one have expected of his Mahler Sixth? Acute understanding of musical form? Awareness of the music’s proximity to that of the Second Viennese School? A keen ear for instrumental balance? So far, so ‘modernist’; yes, we certainly heard all of that. However, I had expected a brisk, no-nonsense approach, and instead heard what I think – though I never consult my watch in such matters – must have been the slowest performance of the work I have heard. I am guessing, but, judging by the time I left the concert hall, think it must have lasted more than an hour and a half.

The first movement, then, began as the symphony meant to go on, though in less extreme fashion, sounding on the slow side, though not provocatively so. The tempo adopted tended to be strict, until it was not, though even then it more often than not sounded as if it were. What do I mean by such (apparent) gibberish? Somehow, and this was a characteristic of the performance as a whole, Gielen pulled off the very unusual ‘trick’ – though that is certainly the wrong word – of managing modifications of tempo so as to sound as if, whether accelerando or ritardando, they were ‘in time’, or rather that being in time at that point entailed increase or decrease of speed. There was little that sounded like, or indeed was rubato; in that, Gielen certainly differed from Boulez, or any other conductor of whom I can think. Indeed, the conductor who came to mind more often than any other was Otto Klemperer, in the sense of what I imagine a Klemperer performance of this symphony might have been like. The granitic integrity was there, likewise the resolute lack of sentimentality; so too was an apparently ‘objective’ approach that yet moved one to tears. (In that respect, I was helpless for roughly the second half of the final movement: tears of horror as Mahler’s nihilistic vision reached a culmination that verges upon the unbearable.) It would be an odd performance indeed that had nothing of the march to the first movement, but I do not think I have heard one in which strict, implacable, militaristic foreboding, based upon an unrelenting march rhythm, was so utterly inescapable. That was not simply a matter of rhythm, but also of prominence of certain parts at certain times, not least the snare drum and some truly awe-inspiring xylophone playing (here and elsewhere).

Gielen came closer than anyone else to persuading me of the Andante-Scherzo ordering of the middle movements. I am not going to argue my case here; it has always been that I am willing to be persuaded, but have yet to hear a performance that did so. (Claims on the other side tend to be of a fundamentalist, false positivistic nature.) At any rate, the Andante sang, at a pace, which, considered ‘objectively’, would probably have been considered an Adagio, but never seemed too slow. Maintenance of line was a key aspect of that achievement, yet so was what one might call the Klemperer-like character of the performance. Not that colour was neglected; the sadness of one particular horn call peered forward to the next symphony’s Nachtmusik. Perhaps what shattered most, however, and this applies to following movements too, were the moments of disintegration, the moments when an idealised version of Adorno’s ‘modernist’ Mahler seemed to become flesh. There was a hollowness that was anything but hollow; there was a nihilism that was yet imbued with belief. Still more so did one hear such ghosts and contradictions in the Scherzo. Gielen’s speed was perhaps, again ‘objectively’, what one might have expected from imaginary Klemperer on a slow day. Yet, as with Klemperer, or at least often with Klemperer, it worked, indeed bludgeoned, its way into one’s Mahlerian consciousness as, if not the only option, then the strongest at the time. I could not quite rid myself of my ear’s warning – or is it simply my mind’s prejudice – that I ‘ought’ to have heard this movement before, nor that it would have made still more sense in its alternative placing; however, as I said, I have never come closer.

The terrible finale was certainly not fast, but it was perhaps less far removed from the ‘norm’ in terms of tempo. There was not so vast, so phantasmagorical, an array of colours as I have heard with Boulez, whether in Berlin, or on his staggering Vienna recording. Structural understanding, and, just as important, communication of that understanding, was every bit as impressive, however, and the granitic quality, the sense, common to the entire performance, of struggling against the fatal side proved more than compensation. (Many masterworks, and I am sure that this is one such example, are greater than any one interpretation, however superlative, can encompass.) Cumulative power, of a musico-dramatic quality one can hardly not call Wagnerian, grew until it could not grow further, and yet somehow continued to do so. Indeed, I found myself slightly regretting the omission that is arguably not an omission of the third hammer-blow. This seemed to be a reckoning with Fate on a level with that of the Ring’s ultimate peripeteia, Wotan’s dismissal of Erda. But Gielen – and Mahler – looked forward too. The moments of breakdown, abysses musical and metaphysical, have surely never sounded so close to functional atonality, to Schoenberg himself. The end when it came felt absolutely necessary; all had been said. However, when, following awestruck silence, punctured by a barbarian cry of ‘Bravo!’, and the onset of audience applause, I moved to join in, I found that initially I could barely do so; my hands were shaking.

It was, then, as I said at the beginning, an extraordinary performance. I have omitted one extraordinary element, though, both extraneous and anything but. Upon arriving at the concert, we were met by banners, leaflets, pleas for help from members of the orchestra and other supporters. The SWR SO Baden-Baden and Freiburg is, as many readers will know, suffering, along with its sister orchestra in Stuttgart, one of the most disgraceful, philistine attacks upon an orchestra in the so-called civilised world. Despite a worldwide campaign (click here for details on the present situation and how to help) to prevent the reckless merger of two very different orchestras in the name of ‘austerity’, the beancounters have so far proved victorious. Alexander Pereira, Director of the Salzburg Festival, came on stage before the performance to express solidarity with the orchestra and its well-nigh unrivalled record in performance of new music. The defiance of Gielen’s performance was surely in some sense, consciously or otherwise, founded in the desperation of the orchestra’s situation and the defiance of its response. Still more extraordinary, then.

Mark Berry

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