I wanted to touch a bit more on Mahler’s 4th Symphony after the performance I heard last week, and throw in a comment or two on Mahler in general. One of the best things, for me, about the Stern/Kansas City SO performance from however many moons ago that was was Stern’s overall approach to the music.
It was refreshing, in this era of flashy and indulgent music-making (does anyone care to disagree that music-making is flashy and indulgent?) to hear something of a throwback interpretation of Mahler. So many performances of Mahler’s symphonies draw largely from the Bernstein method of wringing every last drop of drama and intensity out of the score, markings be damned. This is not to suggest that this method cannot work, as Bernstein’s unofficial successor Michael Tilson Thomas has proven with a generally praiseworthy cycle of the symphonies. But that approach requires either a genuinely forceful (in a good way) personality, like Bernstein, or a tremendous sense of understanding and rapport between conductor and orchestra, like MTT and the band in San Fran. Quite frankly, both are rare anymore, with music directors whisking themselves anywhere the volcano in Iceland allows them to fly and an amazingly small number of men and women with the tools to pull together a performance like that, with all it requires.
That’s why I was so pleased with Maestro Stern’s interpretation; it was simple, straightforward, and concise. In the understatement of the millennium department, Mahler’s music doesn’t really need very much help to be dramatic, intense, and powerful. When I think back to the recordings of folks WAAAAY back when like Walter, Klemperer, Mengelberg, etc., they are endowed with a truly uncomplicated sense of the music that allows it to just be. My conductor man crushes on Otmar Suitner and Kiril Kondrashin are well-documented here and everywhere, and their Mahler recordings are interpreted, generally, in this same fashion.
That doesn’t mean that the Bernstein aesthetic is “worse” or “inferior.” I have recently been on a Bernstein kick and have thoroughly enjoyed it. In many ways, he is the man who other people’s Mahler is judged by, and with good reason. But that approach is a difficult lion to tame, and there are only so many whips out there. Stern’s performance this month was a refreshing jolt to the system in which the music commanded the ship. It’s a different challenge, with much more subjugation, but no less daunting, and conductor and orchestra handled it like champs.
One other note on Mahler, and the 4th in particular…as someone who has been a fan of Mahler for as long as I care to remember, it never really occurred to me the difference in hearing his music in and out of a vacuum. I found the finale of the symphony very moving, and a tear or two may or may not have been shed, depending on who might be reading this sentence. But everyone around me seemed pretty lukewarm emotionally; plenty of fidgeting, yawning, slumping, etc. Obviously performances speak to different people differently, but it struck me that no one was as captured as they, perhaps, ought to have been.
And I think the reason for that is that vacuum I spoke of earlier.
Das himmlische leben is such a powerfully moving work, and it can stand alone just fine. But the music takes on so much more significance when you factor in Das irdische leben, and the quotations from the 3rd Symphony (not to mention the original conception of Das himmlische leben as the 3rd’s final movement). Reading over the translation in the program, the text is beautiful and certainly conveys the spirit of wonder that a child’s view of heaven would almost certainly have. But if you don’t know the child’s view of life, the endless struggle of poverty and hunger, the good asparagus, good apples, pears, and grapes, and St. Peter’s fishing net don’t pack the same tender punch.
The “each symphony and song is part of one monumental work” cliché has been present with Mahler since I’ve ever known anything about him or his music. But last week was the first time it ever really hit me on the head enough to throw it into specific relief. To know Mahler is to know all you possibly can.