Showdown: Mahler vs. Mahler

The Contestants:

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler said that symphonies should be like the world and that they must embrace everything. This is, of course, statistically impossible (unless I’m missing the bits in Mahler about Hillbilly Hand Fishing), but that doesn’t mean that the percentage that actually did make it in couldn’t include a wide range of musical styles. In his attempt to encompass everything under the sun, Mahler crafted symphonies and song cycles that speak to an ever-increasing group of people. I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that his symphonies are as popular as Beethoven’s now, and if I would said that 65 years ago, I would have been kicked in the groin by men in pork-pie hats.

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler seems like a bit of a dick. Perhaps it’s easy for me to sit here casting judgment from my 6’1’’ body having recently spoken to my all-still-alive siblings and non-alcoholic father while patently not being one of the greatest musical geniuses of all-time, but Mahler seems to have been enough of an asshole to make us consider renaming the Napoleon complex. I don’t know why I’m mentioning this, but I’ve grown weary of the “Alma was a whore and poor Gustav suffered greatly by her infidelity” narrative that seems to be everywhere I turn. Now I’m not saying Alma is a gold digger…but she ain’t messin’ with no broke members of the Viennese cognoscenti circa 1900-1920. But wouldn’t you have blown some architect guy if you spent a prime decade of your life quitting your own music to write manuscript copies for somebody else and then having to put up with their bullshit? I know I would, and I don’t even like buildings and shit. Anyway…

The Rep:

Four, count 'em four, voices!

The chorale is a hymn sung in Christian congregations, particularly Protestant denominations. Usually in simple strophic forms or the German Bar (AAB) form commonly found in Bach chorales, they are often harmonized in four or five voices. Over the course of time, it began to include purely instrumental sections of music that maintained the characteristics of the hymns (four voice harmonies, simple tunes, etc.). By way of example, some works with instrumental chorales in them are Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture and Chausson’s Symphony in Bb.

The showdown:

Mahler employed the chorale frequently in his works, both with voice and without, in spite of his seemingly bewildered sense of agnosticism. There is probably at least one in every symphony he wrote if you look hard enough (or not that hard). But there are two that really stand out for me, so let’s put them to the test. Continue reading

20 thoughts on the Top 20 conductors

This is the second in a series tentatively called “Erik responds to significant BBC-related items months after people stopped giving a shit.” The first, my take on the Havergal Brian “Gothic” Symphony, can be found here. There is a reason for the delay, however. If I were lying unremorsefully, I would say that it is because I embarked on a massive listening spree of the conductors on the list to better comprehend their respective legacies (in fact, this is somewhat true…I have been listening to the work of the conductors on the list lately, but I only decided to write this two hours ago, so it wasn’t part of some master plan or anything). If I were speaking truthfully, I would say that I spent major portions of the last month-and-a-half watching every episode of “The Wire,” which was one of the five best things I’ve done in 2011 (seriously, if you haven’t watched that show, it is without question the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on television and you should abandon all your obligations to watch it immediately……..after finishing reading this). For reference purposes, the list of the 20 greatest conductors can be found here.
Continue reading

How much is too much?

The greatest and worst Mahler 3 in the world?

Yesterday, I took an aural stroll through a recording I hadn’t listened to in awhile, the BBC Legends Mahler 3 conducted by Barbirolli (the one with Kerstin Meyer). Overall, it’s a noteworthy performance (prominently featured in Tony Duggan’s enlightening survey of Mahler recordings, which is a completely awesome must-read for anyone who likes Mahler or clear, focused writing), and Barbirolli really goes for broke with the rough edges of the piece. But, God forgive me, I had a hard time getting past some of the technical foibles by the orchestra, and it got me thinking: at what point does a recording (or a performance) shift from “amazing in spite of…” to “if only…” to “I can’t take this shit anymore.”? Continue reading