Promenaders Out in Force for a Vienna Philharmonic Mahler Six Which Lacks Impact

United KingdomUnited Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 72 – Mahler: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniel Harding (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 7.9.2017. (JPr)

Prom 72_CR_BBC Chris Christodoulou_2
Vienna Philharmonic perform Mahler’s Sixth Symphony © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Mahler – Symphony No.6 in A minor

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is laden with mystery and contradictions. I will fill in some details missed in Stephen Johnson’s over-familiar programme notes. We start with the title ‘Tragic’ – that was on the programme for its first Vienna performance (4 January 1907) — but was that the composer’s idea? In the first movement the ‘Alma theme’ rises to be joined by a theme ‘borrowed’ from Liszt’s E flat Piano Concerto; was this on purpose, or because Mahler just had it in his head after conducting the same concerto in 1903? And what about Alma’s reminiscence that the second theme is her husband’s portrait in music of her, can we believe her?

Alma’s notorious unreliability comes to the fore when she tells us the Scherzo’s middle part – the ‘Altväterisch’ Trio – represents the ‘unrhythmical games’ of their two daughters. The problem with that is that in the summer of 1903, when Mahler was writing that movement’s music, one daughter (Maria) was less than a year old and the other (Anna) had not yet been born. Additionally, we need to ask if the Finale should have two or three hammer blows, and indeed the original conception may actually have involved five. Alma believed that Mahler had tempted fate by composing the Sixth Symphony and his Kindertotenlieder, and was himself responsible for what befell him later in 1907. This was his resignation from the Vienna Opera; Maria’s death; and the diagnosis of his heart disease. However, it was Mahler’s view that an artist might sense his own future.

Of course, the greatest controversy concerns the order of the inner movements. This has everything a conspiracy theorist would love including a cover-up by the International Gustav Mahler Society. Mahler’s first thoughts with his Sixth Symphony placed the Scherzo second to be followed by the Andante. It was the standard classical practice at the time to have the slow movement come second and a dance movement third. His publisher printed the score Scherzo/Andante, but while rehearsing for its first performance (Essen, May 1906), Mahler began to play the Andante first then the Scherzo (A/S) and had slips inserted into unsold copies of the score to indicate the change. So this is how the symphony was performed while Mahler was alive, and how his friend Willem Mengelberg performed it with his Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1916. In 1919 however – before conducting the Sixth once again – it is possible that Mengelberg may have come across a pre-erratum-slip S/A copy of the score and so he telegraphed Alma for clarification, which was probably not the best idea. Her brief answer was, ‘First Scherzo, then Andante,’ and that is how he conducted it in 1919 and 1920.

The Critical Edition of the Sixth Symphony was produced by the International Gustav Mahler Society in Vienna in 1963 as S/A because its editor, Erwin Ratz, suggested that Mahler had quickly realized his mistake and restored his preferred order. Not even Alma’s telegram rated a mention in this explanation I believe, and few conductors challenged the decision although many intriguing things happened as a consequence. John Barbirolli for instance, continued to conduct the piece A/S, but for his recording in 1967, EMI switched the movements – apparently without Barbirolli’s approval – to conform to the Critical Edition; though they did restore them later to the order the conductor wanted.

There is just no evidence that I am aware of that Mahler changed his mind about wanting the Andante before the Scherzo and some years ago the International Gustav Mahler Society published its revised second thoughts along those lines. My own opinion – for what it is worth – is that the symphony has more impact, is more frightening – more ‘tragic’ maybe? — if the Alpine refuge of the Andante comes before the ‘Dance of Death’ (Totentanz) horrors of the Scherzo. Both sides of the argument can get bogged down in technicalities and other musical minutiae, so as the conductor Benjamin Zander once suggested, there are really two Mahler Sixths; one that was the original conception of Mahler the composer and the one that was the result of the revisions of Mahler the conductor, made in the process of rehearsing and performing the work. Intriguingly, his own recording with the Philharmonia allows both versions to be played. As for Daniel Harding, he chose A/S and the usual two hammer blows.

Considering the Vienna Philharmonic is ‘Mahler’s orchestra’ it is odd that they have only previously given three of his symphonies at the Proms: Leonard Bernstein and the Fifth (1987), the First under Abbado (1992) and the Second under Rattle (1999).

The orchestra launched headlong into the first movement and kept up this sweeping forward momentum throughout the symphony’s 84-minute duration (including an unfortunately extended interval before the Andante because of latecomers taking their seats). Though not as rich in sound as I expected, throbbing antiphonal violins drove it all onwards and the repeat of the exposition only increased the tension. It was the ‘Alma Theme’ which allowed moments of fleeting lyricism and a reflection of deeper feelings. The bittersweet Andante began immediately with such a sensitively phrased and meltingly beautiful melody that not even the hardest of hearts would fail to have been transported to an almost Strauss-like Alpine idyll. It moved at a flowing pace and there was warmth and plaintive serenity from the orchestra. On reflection perhaps that was the problem, and the emotions I was experiencing were not schizophrenic enough but all too real. What I was hearing was a bit too much like an elegy and this Sixth was not the symphony Bruno Walter described as ‘bleakly pessimistic … the work ends in hopelessness and the dark night of the soul.’ Until its very end – when Mahler seems resigned to life’s futility – I found more optimism in the music than I expected to hear, and it was sounding all too beautiful with few rough edges.

The Scherzo was also at a measured pace and quite reticent. The climaxes did not shriek as they can, though there was some beautiful (that word again) phrasing in the gentle first trio. Best of all was the Finale, from a disturbingly gloomy opening, it all marched forward relentlessly. We were now on the emotional musical rollercoaster I had missed earlier and the more lyrical second subject and sudden moments of euphoria were punctuated by the exclamations of unfolding ‘tragedy’. Those who knew the symphony well realised what was coming, but the much-anticipated event must have been totally unexpected for those who did not. Yes, it was the hammer blows! A huge mallet was wielded to visceral effect, though it must have discomforted the close by bassoons!

Compelling as the Mahler was, it just did not have the impact I expected. What was the problem – the size of the venue, the Vienna Phil on auto-pilot, or the conductor himself … who knows? There were too many excellent individual contributions to mention them all. The brass and woodwind sections excelled in their standout phrases, whilst those celebrated strings provided the solid backbone of the performance. Still, it is important to acknowledge the concertmaster, Volkhard Steude, and a virtuosic horn player for their solos and ‘duet’, as well as, the valiant timpanists and the rest of the percussion.

The drawing power of the Vienna Philharmonic brought Promenaders out in force and there were queues wrapping round the Royal Albert Hall when I arrived. It could have been for Mahler but although the Sixth had to wait until 1963 for its first Prom hearing, this was its 22nd performance. In the event they were packed like sardines in the Arena when for the two previous Proms I attended you could have thrown a frisbee down there without probably hitting anyone. When I sat down I was amused to hear someone describe the Vienna Phil as ‘nice orchestra, disappointing diversity’. (Actually she used a stronger word than ‘disappointing’!) From my seat I counted 16 women in the orchestra massed onto the platform. Since I am half-Viennese I am allowed a comment on this and, of course, this was a small improvement on what is usually seen for their New Year’s Day Concerts.

Jim Pritchard

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