Thursday, June 19, 2008

Mahler: Symphony #2 "Resurrection"

If you love Mahler for his larger than life, supersized symphonic productions, this symphony is for you.
Claudio Abbado and the Weiner Philharmoniker
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony #2 "Resurrection"
Deutsche Grammophon, 1994

The Second Symphony contains everything, and I mean everything, in Mahler's arsenal. Powerful emotion, life and death themes, lush melodies, ripping brass parts, melodrama, pianissimo to fortissimissimo dynamic ranges, choral arrangements (in German no less), even extra parts for a sizable off-stage orchestra. They're all here in this nearly 90-minute long symphony.

But let me warn you, listening to this symphony can be a shocking experience. At times it leaps from repose to climax with little warning or seeming logic. Mahler takes you from emotional valleys to sudden emotional peaks, from straight instrumental music to a consonant-laden German contralto solo, from lush woodwind melodies to deafening brass parts.

One of the things I struggled with, when listening to this symphony for the first time, was trying to be engaged by the symphony without being stunned into submission. I was so often in a state of surprise that it was difficult remaining engrossed in the music. The transition from the end of the 4th movement to the beginning of the 5th and final movement is a typical example: Mahler lulls you gently and serenely to sleep--and then blows your eardrums halfway into your brain with the first note of the final movement.

This is a blessing, however; it simply means that I'm going to have to listen to this symphony a few more times to really get my arms around it.

A handful of listener notes for Mahler's Second Symphony:
1) The dramatic (or maybe better said: melodramatic) first movement, which represents the funeral march, was written in 1888. Mahler then put the work down for some five years before returning to it.

2) How about all of the stray coughs from the audience throughout the recording? They're particularly noticeable at the very beginning of the 3rd movement. It reminds me why I get so annoyed when I'm at a live symphony, and it helps explain why there aren't that many live classical music recordings made. Suck on a damn cough drop!

3) The 3rd movement might remind you of Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique.

4) If you ever wanted to hear conclusive proof that Mahler never played the trumpet, you'll hear it about 10 minutes into the 5th movement. Mahler writes a high B (I think--at least that's what it sounds like) that starts off fortissimo and fades away to pianissimo. The problem is, he has two trumpets playing it in unison. Anyone who actually played a trumpet would know better than to score something like that. Even skilled trumpet players will struggle to nail a note like that--and even the best trumpet players won't be to do it together and stay in tune with each other. It's too hard a note to control.

5) Remember my comment about how you need to keep your finger on the volume dial whenever you're listening to a Mahler symphony? This symphony is yet another example; it goes from inaudible to ear-scorchingly loud. Many times I felt my hair blowing back like in the old Memorex commercial.

6) This Deutsche Grammophon CD set breaks up the symphony into two discs, which in my opinion is total crap. There's no reason, other than charging me extra for the recording, everything can't be put onto one disc.

7) Finally, think about the economics of a putting on a performance of Mahler's Second. All of Mahler symphonies require extra musicians (usually double the typical number of woodwinds, beefed up string sections, what sounds like at least six trumpets and probably as many french horns and trombones, etc). Moreover, this symphony requires still more musicians for the "offstage orchestra" in the 5th movement. On top of that you've got two solo singers and an entire choir. Heck, if you're going to hire all those extra musicians, you might as well put on an opera. Helps explain why this symphony isn't performed live all that often. A shame.

1 comment:

Chantal said...

A most excellent post!!!!

You are certainly right, Mahler 2 is not performed often enough. (but I would say that about any Mahler symphony though, but that's me of course!)