The cliché has it that the best artists of the early 20th century anticipated the dissolution of Old Europe in their work, none more profoundly than Gustav Mahler. Art in this view is either a veiled or explicit critique of society, even when—or perhaps precisely because—it takes the lush form of a Mahler symphony. I don’t much like this approach to aesthetics, which amounts in my eyes to assembling the footage of history into a film, and then going in search of a soundtrack that holds the narrative together. You want the score for demise of the Old Order? Mahler’s your man. Instead, I believe that art encourages in more mysterious ways a personal confrontation with emotional and political realities. To claim that the composer predicted the coming European catastrophe is simply too much.
On either side of 2011, the centenary of Mahler’s death, the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle is presenting the composer’s complete symphonic cycle. Last weekend came the Ninth, with the Saturday night performance broadcast live over the web.
The Mahler tradition in Berlin stretches back into the composer’s lifetime. He conducted the Berlin Philharmonic himself in the premiere of his Second Symphony in 1895, and then returned a dozen years later to lead the orchestra in the first Berlin performance of his Fourth. Arthur Nikisch, the second conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic was a vital proponent of Mahler’s music; the symphonies flourished into the years of the Weimar Republic, before they were banned by the Nazis as degenerate, “Jewish” music. After the Second World War the symphonies were rarely played by the Philharmonic under the direction of former Nazi party member, Herbert von Karajan. He was not the greatest enthusiast of Mahler’s music, though he did receive one of his Grammys for a live 1982 recording of the Ninth, a performance that to my ears suffers from a preponderance of over-pathetic vibrato and obviousness that misses too much of the work’s irony and sarcasm. The symphony is not lacking in ecstasy, but is also riddled with doubt, struggle, and, even, despair—qualities I don’t necessarily with the autocratic Karajan. Of course, no conductor was more authoritarian, unrelenting, and obsessive than Mahler himself.
It was during the tenure of Karajan’s left-wing successor Claudio Abbado, who in contrast to his predecessor less reigned than joined the orchestra as its conductor, that the Mahler tradition not only revived in Berlin, but flourished as never before. A few years back Abbado was in the news because he refused to conduct at La Scala in his native Milan (a post he had been maneuvered out of in the mid 80s) unless the city planted some 100,000 trees—a greenscaping that the nature-loving Mahler would certainly have approved of. Such was Abbado’s dedication to Mahler’s music that he led the Berlin Philharmonic in the Ninth Symphony alone at least fifty times.
The Philharmonic continued its journey away from the aura of Karajan with the selection of Simon Rattle in 1999. He had made his debut with the orchestra a dozen years earlier with Mahler’s Sixth. Rattle also drew frequently on Mahler during his two decades at City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with whom he recorded all of the Mahler’s symphonies. When Rattle took up his current post in Berlin in 2002, Mahler’s Sixth was on his first program. Rattle made another recording of the Ninth with Berlin (), and this two CD set refuses to yield completely to the work’s emotional excess. It is not that I prudishly oppose indulging the Romantic, nor that Rattle throttles back on the elegiac grandeur of the last movement; but interior moments of reserve early on make the whispered acceptance of the close all the more devastating.
Between them Abbado and Rattle have contributed hugely to the increased stature of Mahler’s music, which in terms of its frequency on concert programs of major orchestras, threatens to surpass the play-time of even Beethoven, if it hasn’t done so already.
It therefore ranks as one of the great cultural events of these times to be able to hear in the famous acoustical and architectural environment of the orchestra’s concert hall, the Berlin Philharmonie, Mahler’s Ninth under Simon Rattle. The so-called podium seats—long padded benches without backs or arm rests—just behind the orchestra are the cheapest in the house and are sold two days in advance of the concert. They can’t be purchased on-line or over the phone.
Cycling over to the Philharmonie last Thursday afternoon and arriving only a half an hour before the opening of the box office at three o’clock, I expected to encounter throngs already lined up for tickets. Instead there was only one leather-clad man, who had already been waiting an hour when I showed up. Just before three o’clock a couple dozen people accumulated around us, and when the entrance was opened a renegade group of them burst through another door ahead of us, as if jumping over to a freshly opened cashier’s aisle in a supermarket, throwing down on the conveyor belt not precious Mahler tickets but Cheerios, Coke, and toilet paper.
Unfazed by this flanking maneuver, the man in leather proceeded unhurriedly through our door, and as the latecomers rushed towards the counter his booming baritone filled the foyer with the most authoritative subjunctive mode I have every heard: “Might we continue to observe the initial order of those waiting for concert tickets.” The greedy swarm parted like the Red Sea and I followed him unmolested to the ticket window.
In spite of this momentary chaos, demand for the tickets struck me as almost shockingly low. At the concert two days later the clientele in the podium seats proved to be a mix of rabid dedicatees, who either prefer to experience the orchestra and its conductor at closest possible quarters and/or can’t afford the full-price tickets out in the hall, and tourists checking off another item on a travel to-do list. Less than a minute before Rattle mounted the stage on Saturday night, a group of young women came trundling into our low-rent, high-appreciation sanctuary each with at least four large shopping bags filled with the day’s boulevard loot. They then fought their way through the festival seating of the podium section to the open patch in its middle, their progress followed by the silent outrage of an austere sixty-year-old man nearby wearing Mahler glasses. When a Zara bag the size of a Peterbilt radiator came crashing down from one of the women’s side during the eerily fragmented, uncertain opening of Mahler’s first movement, the perp didn’t even look up from her iPhone texting session. If looks could kill, Mahler Glasses would have been answerable for involuntary manslaughter, though behind the daggers was a knowing look that admitted that proximity to Philistines makes the glories of high art all the more uplifting.
The concert began with the shortest first half I’ve ever been party to: a fifteen-minute orchestral work entitled Tableau by the German composer, Helmut Lachenmann. In it rolling string and wind crescendos were punctuated by full orchestral chords and shocking percussion blasts. One had to marvel at the tremendous precision of the conductor, Rattle, and his orchestra: the result was impressive, but didactic rather than moving, merely demonstrating that complexity without richness can make an interesting point, but not convincing music. The work came across like manipulation rather than art, although one could argue that no one is more manipulative than Mahler in the way he tugs at your heart strings before putting you in hammerlock of irony and dropping you to the mat.
The bows for Lachenmann’s Tableau lasted nearly as long as the piece itself, with the composer taking the stage, thrilled to have his music performed with such vitality. It was a flinty aperitif to the high-calorie feast bathed in Hapsburg twilight that followed. After the intermission economy dispensed gallons of overpriced champagne and fruity cocktails, we returned to our seats, the shopping bags coming in yet again just before Rattle appeared on stage.
The opening of Mahler’s Ninth is often read as an evocation of music in the process of forming itself, of finding its voice: single notes in the brass and winds, the harp, a tremolo of strings, before a melody, tender and urgent, emerges from the second violins. The movement, which alone runs to more than twenty minutes, is intensely wrought-up in its own world of supersaturated feeling and memory. Rattle is a great master of coaxing from his orchestra a sense of music groping its way towards utterance. Symphony concerts are often impressive and exciting, but they are rarely thrilling, invested with such commitment from each player. But one can see it in Berlin—especially from the podium seats—and also hear it. There is no doubt that the Berlin players are all fully in command of their instruments and the music. The group projects a feeling of absolute dedication to the communal project of traversing an epic symphony. The intensity is so palpable that it almost seems as if it could lead at any time to a short circuit and a spectacular collapse. This is high-wire live performance, and the musicians seem as giddy and concentrated from the thrill of dangling over the abyss as are those in the audience. There is nothing safe about this expressive and daring attempt at the seemingly impossible: making chamber music with a hundred players.
In his Ninth, Mahler inverts the traditional symphonic order, framing the two fast interior movements with slow ones. After the opening Andante comes the first of what are essentially two Scherzos. The second movement is set, as the composer instructed, in the “leisurely tempo of a Ländler,” a waltz-like folk dance, that in Mahler’s hands becomes the polar opposite of the Americanized version later served up on the Von Trapp patio in The Sound of Music. With its rough brass chords and simple-minded bass-line lunges, to be played “coarsely and clumsily,” the movement preemptively dismantles Rodgers and Hammerstein’s unbearably cuddly number fifty years before the pair got around to “doing” Austria for the Broadway stage and then the silver screen. By contrast, Mahler’s movement jabs almost maliciously at the idea of Austrian country life, its crude and potentially cruel ways. The Rondo-Burleske that follows is marked “defiantly,” and its posturings and careenings evoke the searing, fast-paced superficiality of city life. This music’s slashing virtuosity, so expertly unleashed by Rattle’s baton, shows that great art can be born of disaffection and derision.
For all the glitter and spite of these middle movements, it is the final one—the finale of the last completed Mahler symphonies (he died before finished the Tenth)— that demonstrates Rattle’s profound understanding that there is something both redemptive and desolate in this music, made real by his ability to draw the most diverse shades of color and meaning from this unmatched orchestra. Is it the acceptance of death that one hears in the symphony’s faltering, but at last peaceful end? Is it a premonition of another apocalypse? Or is it simply the truth of great music that there are many different truths in it?
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org