Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mahler: Symphony #5

"A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything."
--Gustav Mahler

We return yet again to Mahler to listen to his Fifth Symphony in an exceptional recording by Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker.
Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5
Deutsche Grammophon, 1993

Readers of this blog know that I'm partial to Mahler because of his--how shall I put this?--liberal use of loud brass instruments. And as a former trumpet player I can't help but really fall for the Fifth, a symphony that starts out with a big, bright trumpet solo.

What can I say? He had me at "hello."

Like all of Mahler's symphonies, the Fifth blows your hair back with power chords and gripping climaxes, but this symphony is also surprisingly complex and varied, and it also has a highly interesting and irregular five movement structure. We've come a long way since the universal and rigidly obeyed four-movement symphonic structure of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. Classical music in Mahler's era really started to push away many of its old structural boundaries, but--fortunately--it hadn't yet broken into complete atonality.

Before we get to the listener notes, let me make a blatant plug to my readers: If you've at all taken a liking to Mahler and his larger-than-life symphonies, you should seriously consider getting Mahler: The Complete Symphonies. This 12-CD collection, conducted by a youngish Leonard Bernstein, is considered the gold standard recording of the Mahler symphony cycle, and it's an easy way to get great recordings of all of Mahler's works in one simple purchase. Better still, for 12 CDs, the price is quite reasonable at US$62.99 on Amazon. Of course, please keep in mind that I get paid a small affiliate fee on any purchase made on Amazon via links from this site. Think of it as my tip jar, and I thank you for your support.

Nine listener notes for Mahler's Fifth Symphony:

1) We've already talked about the great trumpet solo at the very beginning of the Fifth. But there are plenty of other examples why this symphony is a brass player's fantasy. Here's a typical one: Listen in at 7:17, 7:19 and 7:21 of the first movement for three enormous brass power chords, which are then followed up by even more massive chords from the low brass and low strings. When you hear a powerful symphony like this with modern instruments and a zillion extra musicians, it's tempting to imagine what guys like Haydn and Mozart could have done with all of this extra weaponry.

2) In the second movement, at 11:50, enjoy some more really triumphant trumpet power chords. However, these chords could have been transfixing rather than being merely exciting, if they didn't spring up out of nowhere with no real logic. My sole complaint about Mahler, after familiarizing myself with three of his symphonies, is that he doesn't string his music together with any logic or narrative structure. Rather, he seems to run through a list of compositional vignettes--an entire taxonomy of melodies, tunes, single chords and themes of varying length. One by one they rise up from the deep, break the surface (a few of the largest ones blast hot air into the listener's face for good measure), and then they submerge and disappear, to be replaced by the next melody on the list.

3) What do you think of the lush and creepy waltz of the third movement? It's part waltz, part Mexican dance and even part hoedown. And note how the french horn player gets a good workout in this movement.

4) At the 6:52 mark in the third movement, Mahler tries to score the principal violinist to sound like a guitar, while the rest of the string section plucks away in accompaniment (oom, bling bling; oom, bling bling). The trouble is, no violinist can pluck sixteenth notes on individual strings like a guitar can. The poor guy sounds uneven and amateurish. Mahler wrote that part for the wrong instrument.

5) A particularly interesting example of Mahler's taxonomy of melodies: in the third movement, listen for the clarinet softly playing Bach-like arpeggios underneath the rest of the orchestra at various points. It surfaces most notably at 7:52, and then again from 16:00-16:25.

6) Cough alert! Actually, I wanted to congratulate the Berliner Philharmoniker's audience for hardly any coughs throughout this live performance. Much better than last time.

7) The fourth movement, the Adagietto, is perhaps the most popular movement of Mahler's most popular symphony. This lush, beautiful flower of a piece was supposedly a "wordless love letter" from Mahler to his wife Alma.

8) On to the fifth and final movement: notice how themes and melodies (or officially, "motifs") get passed around from instrument to instrument throughout the movement.

9) And from 11:00 to about 11:15 in the fifth movement, when the tympani and what sounds like another fifty guys in the percussion section rise up and beat the hell out of all their drums, I unconsciously reached up to fix my hair. Yep, I was in my own Memorex commercial.


Chantal said...

That's just one of the many reasons I love Mahler---he provides us with so many "Memorex" moments. They are teeming all over his works!

Yet another fine blog post!

Daniel Koontz said...

Thanks Chantal, and thank you for reading me!