Crowd-Pleasing Mahler Performance Not Quite What the Composer Intended

Mendelssohn, Mozart. Mahler: Sunwook Kim (piano), Philharmonia / Edward Gardner (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 15.3.2015 (GD)

Mendelssohn: Overture The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave)
Mozart:  Piano Concerto in C Minor, No.24, K491
Mahler:  Symphony No 1


The Hebrides Overture has a perfect unity of form and content, the latter projecting a beautiful tone of nature, the sea, evoking a distinct tone of  mystery; all this in the first few bars! And as a nature/seascape, there is never a hint of musical onomatopoeic overlay. Really it is a kind of ‘tone poem’ in extremely economic form. In works like this one of the conductor’s main tasks is to establish the exact right tempo which corresponds to the music’s overall structural form; if the conductor then follows the very clear score the music should unfold naturally, play itself as it were. I heard a good example of this in concert when Charles MacKerras conducted the work a few years before his death with the Philharmonia. Tonight I heard little sense of mystery, Gardner playing the introduction  with no ‘space’ around the music. And when we came to the second subject melody initially on celli ( for Donald Tovey ‘the greatest melody Mendelssohn ever composed’), rather than letting the melody flow naturally Gardner over-phrased it in a quite arbitrary manner. In the lead to both the stormy development section and coda Gardner –  for reasons best known to himself – slowed down considerably thereby losing all sense of the work’s form and structure.

The first movement ritornello of Mozart’s K 491 opened in a rather bland and static manner with little sense of movement, drama or suspense. Gardner chose a sluggish initial tempo which had little correspondence with Mozart’s marking of Allegro. The furious C minor overlapping of dissonant string figurations punctuated by trumpets and timpani sounded indistinct with no sense  of Sturm und drang urgency. And in such passages antiphonal violins, which Gardner did not deploy throughout the concert, are an absolute sine qua non in terms of clarity and sharpness.  In the complex development section which encompasses a constellation of tonalities – some as remote from each other as E flat and F minor – I lost any sense of rapport or dialogue between Kim and the conductor/orchestra. On several occasions I had a sense of Sunwook Kim wanting to move on out of the set tempo. As was usual practice Mozart did not write out a cadenza leaving a blank space for the pianist to extemporise. Here Kim came more into his own with the quite expansive and elaborate cadenza of Paul Badura-Skoda, seeming to relish the re-casting of the numerous juxtapositions between C minor and other tonal clusters, although at times his playing came over as over-stated; too much pianistic rhetoric for Mozart! Unlike in his other piano concertos Mozart does not indicate a concluding cadenza flourish. Instead the orchestra re-enters with a connecting passage of two bars not to be found anywhere else in this movement, but I didn’t hear this clearly.

The E flat Larghetto in five-part rondo form lacked line,finesse of phrasing and contour. The beautiful concertante woodwind sequences were nicely played, here Kim played with a more chamber-like rapport. But overall I wanted more sharpness and definition of orchestral texture. Together with the Piano Concerto K 453 in G this is the only one to deploy a finale in variation form. Here again I wanted more cut, buoyancy and clarity especially in the strings, Gardner’s rather undecided and plodding tempo not helping matters much.  The tutti interjections based on  the finale’s thematic rhythmic structure lacked dramatic bite and thrust. In the final variation in 6/8 time there was even less dialogue between soloist and conductor. This certainly had no correspondence with Tovey’s description of this as the ‘summing up of the work’s pathos’.  It was most probably this haunting phrase that made Beethoven exclaim to Ries, as they were listening to a rehearsal,  ‘Oh my dear friend, we will never get an idea like this’. Here Beethoven knew he was hearing one of the the supreme master-works not just of the Mozart canon, but of the whole Western canon of culture and sublime   art.   I hate to think what Beethoven (or indeed Mozart) would have thought of tonight’s offering!

The philosopher and music theorist Theodor Adorno has gone into some detail as to why Mahler’s works (mostly symphonies) have historically received a negative or overtly hostile reception from both critics and audiences, the First Symphony, premiered in Budapest in 1889 being no exception. Even at this time Mahler’s use of programme meaning – for example, the incorporation of the ‘The Hunter’s Funeral Procession’, from romantic poet/writer Jean Paul, and a Germanised version of  ‘Frere Jacques’ in the third movement – was seen as passé belonging to an earlier more impressionistically sentimental age.The one-time title of the symphony as ‘Titan’ from the novel by Jean Paul was beginning to sound dated, but as Adorno notes, a great deal of this antagonism towards Mahler and his music was really subtended by a virulent European anti-Semitism. Although Mahler still has many detractors the clocks have turned, so to speak,  mostly through the advances in ‘mechanical reproduction’, and the increasingly efficient audio-visual technology creating different types of mass audience. There are now as many, if not more, recorded versions of Mahler’s First Symphony, than of a Beethoven symphony! But some would say that despite this turn in popularity a new fashion in Mahler performance has produced a kind of sensationalised, even dumbed-down Mahler. – a new species of Mahler interpretation very different from what Mahler intended. Of course this is partly due to Mahler as a new symptom of commodity-fetishism, but also with what Adorno predicted: Mahler as a vehicle for the star conductor. Indeed every conductor today who wants to advance their career will energise this through Mahler. Now part of this process has produced some very fine Mahler conductors and performances, but it has also produced interpretative problems. It is through this latter category that tonight’s Mahler 1 must be assessed/ evaluated.

The opening augured well with its seven-octave deep pedal promising Wagnerian spaciousness, but through this long sequence denoting timelessness, with nature sounds and distant fanfares, a kind of static  quality (in the negative, marmorial sense) developed  so that when the ‘very restrained’ 2/2 Allegro arrived Gardner had to make a rather ungainly gear shift in order to get back on track,as it were.The nature sounds (especially the  bird/cuckoo-calls were not just prominent, they were ludicrously high-lighted producing a kind of ornithological, Disneyfied sound-scape.  When the jubilant coda did come (with Don Juan-like, almost priapic sounding horns) it did not evolve or emerge from the previous harmonic/tonal complexities, and had a kind of ‘added on’ impression. And the Accelerando at the approaching coda, where Mahler asks for none, sounded superficial and meretricious. In the second  movement Mahler asks for a ‘vigorous’ and ‘lively’ scherzo in ländler form. Gardner certainly adhered to this, with energetic, stalking double-basses which, although well articulated, lacked a certain lumbering weight – a bit too polite for Mahler in rustic mood. The trio marked ‘with restraint’, always sounding to me like parodied Vienese Café music, dragged under Gardner; not only did it drag, against Mahler’s specific instructions, it sounded lumpy and rhythmically impaired.

The third movement funeral march (The Hunters Funeral Procession, with all manner of beasts)  correctly introduced by double bass in its highest register over funeral march drums was very well played, although in the old New York Philharmonic recording conducted by Mahler’s friend Bruno Walter this instrumental combination sounds far more grainy, more ‘grotesque’ – one of Mahler’s favourite terms. The movement is marked Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen ( Solemn and measured, without dragging), a similar marking to which one finds in Bruckner symphonies. But how does a conductor determine a basic tempo from this? Of all the conductors I have heard here it seems Walter intuitively gets it right, a kind of measured pace, but with movement’. Walter also understands the irony Mahler evoked in the the term ‘solemn’. But Gardner adopted a tempo so slow that it almost dragged. At times especially in the ‘Frere Jaques’ sequence in minor canon, it seemed as though he just could not establish a firm sense of tempo, with indecision creeping in. And at the section marked ‘Musikanten’ (street musicians) with their popular refrains and Bohemian Glissandi, the deliberately banal and vulgar, again upsetting bourgeois audiences at the time, Gardner just sounded too polished, too smooth and bland.

The finale marked Stürmisch bewegt (Tempestuous) in F minor/D flat is considered by many to be the weakest movement structurally, but if Mahler’s very precise score instructions are adhered to it can sound convincing. Again  listening to the already mentioned Bruno Walter New York recording I was impressed by Walter’s ability to see this movement in its whole structural coherence, as if he is fully aware of the  triumphant coda whilst conducting the stormy introduction. And although, with Walter, the stormy opening bars sound as arresting and dramatic as with any conductor, it is only when we arrive at the final climax that we hear that Walter had kept a degree of power in reserve, so that the movement unfolds progressively and compelling as a symphonic narrative. With Gardner the opening tutti storm assaulted the ears; it was too much ‘in your face’ to use a fashionable term – a full-throttle outlet with no sense of keeping energy/dynamics in reserve.  This movement is also about contrasts, quite extreme contrasts of lyrical and dramatic material. In the first lyrical contrast marked Sehr gesangvoll (very songlike) Gardner slowed down to such an extent that the music almost came to a standstill. Then, as in the first movement, he had to make some quite distorting gear-shifts to get up to tempo again. The triumphant coda itself sounded merely loud, very loud. I suppose this kind of thing appeals to less sophisticated members of the audience, as would  Gardner’s wild and animated podium gestures, but these things have little to do with Mahler. And why did Gardner make a speed gearshift in the coda? To produce a grandstand ending with ecstatic applause? Well, if this was the calculated effect it certainly succeeded;  the audience response was almost hysterical. And this was compounded by the calculated standing up of the complete horn section just at the initiation of the coda. Again all these audience pleasing contrivances had absolutely nothing to do with Mahler and his conducting disciples.

Under the circumstances the Philharmonia played quite well. Although, when the strings (mostly violins) were in their top register a certain shrillness was evident. But the strings didn’t have the Mahlerian diversity of tone heard in orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic or Amsterdam Concertgebouw., and, as noted, the double-basses, although well articulated, lacked a certain sonority and gravitas.

Geoff Diggines

5 thoughts on “Crowd-Pleasing Mahler Performance Not Quite What the Composer Intended”

  1. A quick look at the score will inform your reviewer that the horns are indeed required to stand up, just after figure 55.

  2. Qiscustodet is correct. In some scores of Mahler’s 1st Symphony the horns are indeed instructed to stand up in the coda. But in other score editions no such instruction is given. There are myriad details in Mahler editions where Mahler felt equivocal. In 1907 he went to Linz to conduct the symphony. He arrived late from Frankfurt and gave some detailed comments to the conductor who was rehearsing the work, Leopold Materna. On the question of the horns standing up Mahler said explicitly to Materna that although he had included the instruction – so that the horns would sound louder – he now thought it ‘over ‘theatrical’. When his disciple Bruno Walter later conducted the work he never adhered to this contrived effect. I have previously seen/heard the symphony conducted by Kubelik, Haitink, Boulez and Kertesz, and none of them adhered to this theatrical gimmick. In criticising Gardners meretricious and distorted rendition I mentioned the horn-standing as compounding an already loud and unmusical performance.Quiscustodet should realise that especially in Mahler the score is never set in stone.

  3. Quiscustodet is correct the horns are instructed to stand up in some score editions. But like in many textual points Mahler was endlessly equivocal. In 1907 he attended a rehearsal of the 1st Symphony in Linz. He explained to the conductor Leopold Materna that he now thought this effect to be ‘too theatrical’. Mahler’s student Bruno Walter never adhered to it, Neither did Mahlerians such as Kubelik, Boulez and Haitink. Quiscustodet should realise that, especially in Mahler, the score is never set in stone.

  4. Mahler was right to come to the view that the standing up of the horns was ‘over ‘theatrical’. Unfortunately flashy conductors today are ‘into’ such cheap-thrill theatrics usually to make up for their inability to conduct Mahler such as Gardner and Rattle whom grotesquely distort Mahler’s tempi marking simply to make a cheap rhetorical effect.

    I have noticed that there is an embarrassingly awful fashion nowadays for conductors to drastically slow down in Mahler’s lyrical (‘romantic’) passages to over ‘milk’ the music of its already over kitsch sentimentality. Walter and Klemperer always conducted Mahler ‘straight’ keeping far closer to what the composer actually wanted. Today it seems that the conductor is seen as being far more important than the composer.

    Gardner simply could not ‘conduct’ Mahler’s 1st symphony. The first movement was far too static with no sense of an unfolding transition whilst the closing coda was absurdly rushed. Gardner over-emphasized the pointed woodwind bird-calls which made the music sound Disneyfied. Gardner could not establish a basis tempo and so the movement simply fragmented, disintegrated and fell apart..

    The second movement (minuet and trio) was far too tame and well mannered and had nothing of the “to the village pub” about it let alone a “peasant dance”. The third movement, ‘The Huntsman’s Funeral’ or ‘Frère Jacques’ just dragged out with the solo double bass being played far to refined and straight faced by Tim Gibbs. I say too refined because the solo double bass is allegedly meant to portray a worn out musician and should sound gruff, grainy, rough and rugged and literally out of tune. The kitsch-carnivalesque parody procession depicting a scratch brass-band march was far too smoothed out and so completely losing its sense of dark humour. Gardner failed to grasp Mahler’s wicked sense of irony and parody.

    The opening of the Finale was just brash and loud whilst in the lyrical section Gardner slowed down too much making the music lose its sense of unfolding symphonic line: there is a terrible fashion nowadays to almost slow down to a standstill in the ‘romanti’c lyrical passages to ‘milk’ the sentiment (that does not need any further ‘milking’!) The closing passages were ridiculously rushed (one imagines to make it like a fanfare finale to erupt applause – which it obviously did. Yet for the closing bars to have real force, power and momentum, they must be taken at a broader pace to build up the tension. Gardener got the horns to stand up which is another unnecessary (and unmusical) gimmick but our ‘dumbed down’ audiences of today love these cheap theatrics.

    Throughout the symphony Gardner could not maintain a steady grasp of Mahler’s tempo markings and utterly failed to understand Mahler’s irony, parody, humour and tragedy: this was Mahler conducted in a pedestrian, bland and literal way accompanied by grotesquely distorted tempi from the far too slow to the far too fast.


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