A Quantum Leap: Mariss Jansons’ Munich Mahler

Mahler: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (conductor) Philharmonic Hall, Gasteig, Munich, 6.5.2011 (JFL)

Mahler: Symphony No.6


Mariss Jansons. Credit: Astrid Ackermann

Mariss Jansons in Mahler is often impressive, but never particularly exciting—not on record and not in concert. The edge and energy he brings to Shostakovich seems completely missing, the micromanaging leads to manicured performances; and instead of orgasmic climaxes and harsh and husky vigor, one gets emaciated politeness. That style—at its best—could potentially suit the Ninth Symphony (I’ve not heard the recording on Simax), and it works quite well with the Seventh (on BR Klassik, at least). But the two last Mahler Thirds (Concertgebouw, BRSO) were emblematic for how Jansons and Mahler don’t gel. Certainly not in the Sixth Symphony, the roughest, darkest of them all; not if one goes by his two live recordings from 2003 and 2006 (LSO Live, RCO Live). But then, because he’s such a fine conductor and because he has such great orchestras at his disposal, any opportunity to hear Jansons live in Mahler—in this case with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra—is worth seeking out, and so I did, last Friday at the Philharmonic Hall in Munich.

There was early promise, and it came already in form of the program notes which suggested the order of the inner movements to be Scherzo first, then Andante… which is at least a hint in favor of fury and frenzy over the more refined interpretations. (Barbirolli’s recording, originally performed Andante-Scherzo, is a notable exception.) This was something of a surprise, since he has hitherto performed the Sixth with the slow movement first, in accordance to the latest International Gustav Mahler Society’s recommendations. That recommendation makes some sense, because Mahler only ever performed the symphony that way and wanted the score printed to reflect that. Any attempts to claim otherwise have turned out to be untenable or downright fraudulent. But more Mahler enthusiasts seem to agree that the order Scherzo-Andante makes more dramatic sense and the symphony more powerful. I recently spoke with the composer David Matthews (along with his brother Colin editor of Deryck Cooke’s ‘performing version’ of Mahler’s 10th Symphony), who was never more animated during the conversation than when he agreed vigorously that musically Scherzo-Andante was the only viable option. Mahler scholar Henri-Louis de La Grange agrees, too, and even Andrew Manze, whom I did not have down as a Mahlerian, opined that Scherzo-Andante made more sense, as long as one chose the original finale—the one with three hammer blows—to go with it.

If Jansons (apparently) cited musicological research to suggest his seemingly belated change of heart, I am not aware of it; perhaps it was his musical instinct that led him to change his preference. Whichever the case may be, more promise followed in form of the performance. The first chords and notes were suitably gruff as they were ripped off the note-stands before the players, a rousing beginning to the first movement with runaway fervor. Between the outbreaks lurk the softly soothing lacunae, ever stirred by the military drum that stirs up trouble and goads the orchestra on. There was a wonderful trading of momentum back and forth, faster and slower, that took the first movement into the Scherzo with irresistible energy.

It’s always impressive to hear such a huge apparatus of an orchestra go through the motions with such precision in such a tumultuous movement, but well beyond that this was a notably different category of Mahler performance than I have ever heard from Jansons. It continued in style with the Scherzo, with its terrorized trills and averting shrieks, the lonely squawks and moments of stubborn, treacherous daintiness, and the skeletal dance of the bony xylophones. (We meet the latter again in this symphony’s sequel, Shostakovich’s Fourth.) The directness of the sound and the distinctiveness of the individual instruments were in good part what made this second movement and turned it into something fierce, even if the conception itself wasn’t notably ferocious.

The Andante was pure gorgeousness, liquid and untroubled (but of course askew) as if nothing had happened: A pastoral lie, and what a beautiful lie at that! Played by the orchestra to smooth perfection, seamless and soothing, we don’t… we never question that lie for as long as the movement lasts. “Of course you won’t die.” We cling to that. Dum spiro spero. But why the sudden unrest? Why the palpitations? The music knows it is too early to resist… fate leaves us a comforting lack of choice here, and rage is futile. Mahler gently closes your eyes for a little longer and lets you float on an all-encompassing wave of music until the poor soul gets dropped at the foot of the last movement, where neither dreaming nor denial can carry the load of life any further.

Now breaks out the last fierce struggle, fuelled by the kernel of hope that is innate to man… and executed with that anger that sits somewhere on the cusp of fury and resignation. Mahler—that’s ultimately who the sorry protagonist of any of his symphonies is—puffs himself up and places his steps on the upward path, tentative at first, but with resolve. Head down and onward, upward. Anger and determination pulse through the music, which becomes numb to outer influences, to a point where the pain begins to feel exhilarating.

The rest of the symphonic story is well known. Three (or in this case two) hammer-blows cut down the false optimism, even as, at the very end, it seemed that overcoming fate might yet just be possible. The answer is always a cruel “No!” Perhaps Mahler thought that the last, third, “No” was gratuitous… that the hero didn’t need ostentatious cutting down that third time… that it was enough, and realistic enough to let him get on with his hollow tumble down the mountain, right into the casket, the nails of which the orchestra drives in with its last few beats. Even if so, I shouldn’t have minded the more dramatically obvious version with three hammer blows, which in this performance were produced with a gigantic mallet (onto a crate or a wooden block?) that made for a perfectly deadened, dry thump.

The performance was exceptional throughout. All the solo parts were executed impeccably, and apart from brief ensemble issues right before the final false climax, the orchestra played with energy and detail to rival anything one can reasonably expect from a live Sixth. Only the cowbells, whether played from the back of the auditorium or on stage, didn’t go along: they sounded incongruous, busily clangorous and noisy and tinny. More like a visiting giant in the audience going through his pockets with oversized car keys… Another good use found then, for that hammer-blow mallet.

Jens F. Laurson