Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mahler: Third Symphony

But I have surely written you that I am at work on a large composition. You cannot believe how this claims one's entire being, and how one is often so deep in it that for the outer world one is as if dead. Try to conceive a work so vast that in it the entire world is mirrored--one is, so to speak, only an instrument on which the whole universe plays. (I have explained this to you often, and you must accept it, if you really wish to understand me. Everyone who wishes to live with me must learn this. In such moments I no longer belong to myself.) ...These are fearful birth pains the creator of such a work suffers, and before all this organizes itself, builds itself up, and ferments in his brain, it must be preceded by much preoccupation, engrossment with self, a being dead to the outer world. My symphony will be something the world has not as yet heard!
--Gustav Mahler, in a letter to his lover Anna von Mildenburg, describing the gestation of his Third Symphony--and responding to her complaints that he was not writing to her often enough (quote thanks to The Essential Canon of Classical Music and Composers On Music: Eight Centuries of Writings).

I've been looking forward to listening to this monster of a symphony for a long time, but in a way I had to get up the courage to do so:

* It takes up 2 CDs.
* It has six movements (initially, Mahler considered a seventh).
* It lasts more than 90 minutes.
* And the first movement alone is a symphony in itself, at more than 33 minutes.

I can't imagine the courage it must have taken to write it.
Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Mahler: Symphony No. 3

Deutsche Grammophon, 1999

There is a fine line, however, between earth-shattering drama and melodrama, and in this symphony Mahler repeatedly stomps over that line--especially in the first movement.

And that flair for melodrama apparently infected the producers of this recording too: the final track on this CD (Track 19) is entitled "Applause"--and it is three minutes and twenty seconds long. Yes, you heard that right. There's a more than three-minute-long track, deliberately placed at the end of this symphony, that contains applause. Clapping.

And yet I love this symphony like very few in my collection. That's how it is with Mahler--you have to embrace the melodrama. What a fool I've been to let this CD sit on my shelf, collecting dust, for so long!

Listener Notes for Mahler's Third Symphony:
1) The Berlin Philharmonic must have some monster French horn players. They really let it rip in the opening passage.

2) An occupational hazard of a live recording: somebody on stage accidentally drops something during the pianissimo section at 0:42 in Track 1. I'm sure we'll hear a more than typical number of mistakes, as well as--shudder--coughs, from the audience.

3) There's a big trumpet mistake late in the first movement (at 1:39 in Track 8 on CD 1). In his "buh buh buh buhhhhhh!" part, he really whiffs the last note.

4) This first movement is truly a symphony within a symphony. At 32 minutes, it's materially longer than Beethoven's entire Fifth Symphony. Heck, Haydn could fit three or four "symphonies" into 32 minutes! But it does beg a question: How many times, for example, should you incorporate major musical climaxes, um, in your first movement? And after three, four, or even five major climaxes, what could possibly be left to say for the remaining hour of the symphony? After I finished the first movement, I couldn't believe that I had only heard one-third of this work.

5) Whoo. Onto the second movement--only 64 minutes to go! This is not a symphony for the attention-span-challenged.

6) The second movement is so quaint and beautiful, and so radically different in tone and style from the first movement, that it seems preposterous that the same composer could have written both.

7) The third movement has to be the kookiest Scherzo movement I've ever heard. It sounds like something out of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

8) A piece of trivia regarding the off-stage trumpet in the third movement (begins at 0:12 in Track 7 of Disc 2): That's actually not a trumpet, or at least it's not supposed to be. It's a flugelhorn, a brass instrument very similar to a trumpet but slightly larger and more mellow-sounding. At the beginning of Track 9, you'll hear a trumpet come in with a gentle call which is immediately answered by the off-stage flugelhorn--those two passages give you a good sense of the difference in sound between the two instruments.

9) I'm very pleased with the cough-related behavior of this audience. I noticed just a few barely-audible stray coughs during the third movement, another couple in the fourth movement, and that was about all. Further proof that the Europeans behave better than Americans in the symphony hall.

10) Lots of elements of the fourth movement are downright ghoulish. The vocal soloist singing in an unusually low register (the singer, Anna Larson, is a contralto, which is the lowest of female singing registers--if she were a man she could sing a mean tenor part), the really low notes from the bass viols, the odd glissandos (first the oboe, then the saxophone), the lyrics (drawn from Nietsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra), and then a children's choir entering with cheery major chords--that then warp into creepy-sounding minor keys. This movement is almost too much to take.

11) I think if you want to understand why musicians and audiences worldwide have deep affection for Mahler, listen to the fourth and fifth movements of this symphony. It's hard to believe that this much emotion and tension can take place in music.

12) Holy cow on the ripping brass parts in the final movement, especially towards the end of Track 16, and at the very end in Track 18. No brass player on earth would feel anything but love for this symphony.

13) And I have to eat my words from earlier in this post when I picked on the "Applause" track. It belongs there. It totally does. I understand now.

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