Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mahler, and the Seventh

IT WAS A FELLOW employee at the Berkeley Post Office, Gary Jerburg I think his name was — this was after all sixty years ago — who introduced me to the music of Gustav Mahler. In those days he was still a neglected, even an unfamiliar composer — of works one knew only by reputation, and the reputation was far different then.

I remember, for example, a paperback guide to the symphonic literature, The Symphony by Ralph Hill, published by Penguin Books — in those days serious how-to-listen books seemed important. ("The purpose of this book is to guide the intelligent and serious listener towards a deeper understanding of the masterpieces of symphony, which he is likely to hear frequently in the concert hall, on the air, or on the gramophone.") Mr. Hill did not take kindly to Mahler, "Bombastes Furioso, caustic, cynical, ironic, intolerant and dictatorial…"

Gary brought me a couple of long-playing recordings of Mahler: the Bruno Walter recording of the Fourth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, and I was hooked. Before long I'd added Walter's recording of the Ninth to my shelf. I think it was the long-playing record, and especially the then-new stereo technique, that made the popularization of Mahler possible: before long, of course, Leonard Bernstein finished the job, and Mahler's been a permanent fixture of the standard repertory ever since. His time has come, as he had promised it would.

The other day Mahler's Seventh Symphony was in the air hereabouts — the Bay Area, I mean — as Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony through it. I didn't hear it: I was away at the time. I probably wouldn't have heard it even if I'd been here, as I'm not fond of Thomas's way with Mahler, and I'm particularly fussy about the Seventh.

At one time I studied the Seventh fairly closely, probably in the early 1960s. I bought the Eilenberg edition of the pocket score in April 1962, according to my bookplate, and when the Berkeley Public Library acquired the Universal Edition edition a few years later, with Mahler's many changes from the earlier state the Eulenberg edition presents, I carefully added in all those changes into my copy.

There were two recordings of the Seventh in those days, as far as I can remember: Hermann Scherchen's, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, and Maurice Abravanel's, with the Utah Symphony. I liked them both, for different reasons. When I "listen" to the Seventh with my mind's ears, it is with Abravanel's tempi and weighting, though I seem to remember Sherchen's version often seeming more graceful.

The Seventh has curious architecture. Landscape architecture, I think I mean. Two long developmental-but-episodic movements start and finish the piece, whose central movement is one of those shadowy Mahler scherzos, flanked with two fragrant, rustic serenades. The orchestra includes cowbells, a mandolin, a guitar. The very opening is striking — a quiet steady but uncertain rhythmic figure which Mahler wrote came to him as he was rowing, at night, on an Alpine lake, with a suddenly cautionary but peremptory solo on the tenor-horn. If you've walked the Alps at nightfall you know the feeling.

Siege Ozawa led the San Francisco Symphony in the Mahler Seventh in 1976, and I remember thinking he led it beautifully. It was the only work on the program, as is often the case — it runs over 80 minutes in most performances. Ozawa had asked me it I had any ideas as to what to program with it, and he was surprised and I think amused at my answer: Start with Strauss's Tales from the Vienna Woods, I suggested, and continue with the Webern Symphony op. 21.

This would of course have added maybe twenty minutes to the program. I thought you could take a short intermission after the Webern. The connecting thread through the pieces is the plucked strings: zither in Strauss, harp in Webern, mandolin and guitar in Mahler. Austria throughout.

The most important thing, I think, is not to let Mahler's finale get too boisterous. Most conductors fall down here, and I think that's what made Ralph Hill think of Mahler as "Bombastes Furioso". The Seventh is on the Haydn model, not the Beethoven: the weight's on the opening movement, not the finale. Allegro ordinary, Mahler says, though he added Pesante to the second version in a number of places, and does, it's true, end fortissimo. But I think the rhythms are jaunty and rustic, not pushy and overpowering; Mahler's still in the mountains in lederhosen, not in uniform on a parade ground.

So I prefer these days to look at the score from time to time, and to "hear" the piece from the page, and from memory. But note, if you've read this far, that this morning, thinking about writing this, I discovered the Abravanel recordings available as a download, from a source I don't usually like to patronize, for only $2.99, for all nine completed Mahler symphonies, with a few song-cycles thrown in. The recorded sound is far from adequate these days, but the tempi and weight and attitude strike me as just right — at least in the Seventh, which is the only one I've dipped into so far.

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