Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Mahler – A Transcendental Experience

Driving round the N104, the Parisian equivalent of the South Circular, on the way home from the exhausting Christmas and New Year celebrations, I turned on France Musique and a Mahler symphony was playing. After a while I recognized Symphony No 2 “The Resurrection” and I was enjoying hearing something that I hadn’t listened to for a long time.

Whilst the last two movements were playing I remembered an occasion years ago when I was at a concert in the Barbican in London. Michael Tilson Thomas was conducting the LSO playing Mahler's 3rd Symphony. It had been a long day and after the vocal part at the beginning of the 5th movement, just when you are expecting the finale, there is a further twenty minutes of orchestral music to finish the 90 minute piece. Slowly I realized that I had somehow entered a timeless space. I was not asleep, I could hear and see everything going on around me, but I was not in a normal state of consciousness. This lasted until the end of the symphony when there was no jerk back to normality, or even a sensation of waking up and consciousness returning, just a transition back to a normal state of mind. I have never felt like that before or since, and I can only assume that it was some sort of transcendental experience brought about by a long tiring day and the intense concentration that an hour or so of active listening requires.

When the France Musique announcer said that the concert was a recording of the Maryinsky orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev I was not surprised. The interpretation and playing were excellent and the solo singers outstanding. Gergiev has been one of my favourite conductors for a while now. He has an understanding of music which lets it speak for itself without imposing annoying personal quirks of interpretation. He also gets the best playing from his orchestra. The downside is his vocalizations!

You could never say that Leonard Bernstein’s interpretations were not personal, but he understood Mahler like no one else of his generation. It was hearing him conducting No 5 with the Vienna Philharmonic on Thursday 10th September 1987 at a BBC Prom that made me aware of the Mahlerian musical landscape and started me off in that direction. That exceptional concert is still mentioned occasionally in Proms programme notes. 

Fortunately, fur bru has somehow found a recording with very good sound quality, probably made by the BBC, which captures this event.

Later in January we are going to London to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct Mahler’s 9th with the LA Philharmonic. His appearances with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra have wowed everybody and although he is still very young he has impressed the music world, including professionals like Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado. So much so that at the age of 26 he was appointed Principal Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, and in 2009 he became Music Director of the LA Phil.

The last time I saw Mahler's 9th in the concert hall was on 25th August 1994 when Claudio Abbado conducted it with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Proms. After he had drawn out the last bars of the fourth movement to an almost inaudible pianissimo, and then held the audience in suspense for at least twenty seconds, whilst we could hear the silence, a packed Royal Albert Hall gave him a standing ovation. That was an experience never to be forgotten and Gustavo has a lot to live up to!
I think he is up to the challenge.

Here Gustavo is conducting the opening of Mahler's 9th.


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