Richard Nisley

The last Romantic–the symphonies of Gustav Mahler
Music - Classical Released - Oct 27, 2018
Orchestral music was in a state of transition when Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) took up his pen and began composing symphonies, the likes of which the world had never heard before. His nine symphonies span perhaps the most momentous transition in all of music. While his youth coincided with the final flowering of Late Romanticism (the music of Brahms, Shumann and Wagner), his later years saw the birth of radicalism (the music of Debussy, Hindemith and Richard Strauss) that was to undermine the centuries-old structure of music itself. In taking the traditional symphony to its expressive limits, and in so doing stretching the conventional tonal system to the breaking point, Mahler effectively contributed to its demise. In a sense Mahler was the last Romantic, the end of the line that begun about 100 years before with the classic symphonies of Franz-Joseph Haydn (and peaked with the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven). After Mahler, the symphony was no longer as important. 20th-century composers such as Bartok, Debussy, and Ravel ignored the genre altogether and felt no compulsion whatsoever to attempt writing one.

Not everyone was crazy about the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. They were long, emotionally over-the-top, and, some would say, tasteless. "The symphony," he explained, "should be like the world; it must contain everything." Indeed, had he not been a famous opera conductor, with much clout and access to a number of world-class orchestras, it's likely no one would have heard his music. Still, he never lost faith, and often said, "my time will yet come." And it did, too, in the age of recorded sound. And who should conduct his music in the age of records? Two of his understudies who had shared his vision, and who helped him conduct the massive forces his symphonies sometimes called for: Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, both of whom were in their early twenties when Mahler was approaching his 60s and writing his greatest symphonies. Long after he died, Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic performed Mahler's last great work, the mighty Ninth Symphony which was duly recorded and released to the public, on ten 78-rpm records–20 sides in all. This was in 1938. Why Bruno Walter? Because he had conducted the world premier of Symphony No. 9 in 1911.

Because Mahler's Ninth was so long it was seldom performed, thus when EMI's Fred Gaisberg learned that Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic were planning a rare performance, he decided to take the opportunity to record it. Because Walter had scheduled a number of rehearsals at Vienna's Musikverein, there was ample time for the engineers to set up a "live" recording. Two machines were used, running in harness: while one was recording, the other was being loaded with wax. Eight weeks later, Austria was annexed by Hitler. A number of Vienna Philharmonic principles fled the country, as did Walter himself.

Gaisberg caught up with Walter, a "bewildered refugee," in Paris to obtain his approval of the recording, now packaged in a multi-disc album of ten 78-rpm records. He recalled: "So delighted was he with the results that his usually sober face brightened up considerably." As well it might: an authentic document, laden with historic interest, had been captured on record with just 56 days to spare. Listening to the performance today can be a harrowing experience. And while Walter recorded the symphony after the war (in stereo, on Columbia Records), he never again captured the feeling of his earlier 1938 performance. The '38 recording has been digitalized and transferred to a single CD.

The next conductor to champion Mahler's symphonies was Leonard Bernstein. He was the first to record all nine–not once but twice.

Mahler was impressed with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with its groundbreaking use of chorus and four soloists in the Fourth Movement. He mimicked Beethoven and composed symphonies that included chorus and soloists, in not one but in five of his nine symphonies, and not in one movement, but in several. Symphony No. 8, the so-called "Symphony of a Thousand," includes two children's choirs, one adult chorus, and various soloists, plus a hundred-piece orchestra. While not quite a thousand performers are employed, the number is close to a thousand, and quite often there are more performers on stage than patrons in the audience.

For Mahler, the symphony was the means to convey the panoply and full complexity of his ideas and for this he needed a large canvas. None of his symphonies lasts less than fifty minutes and five run for over eighty. All require large orchestras and four include singers. His most popular symphony is the second, which has displaced Beethoven's Ninth as the most performed symphony in the world.

In his second symphony, Mahler tackled no less a subject than life and death. It's a work of great power and intensity, and employs a chorus and soloists. The fifth and final movement serves up an apoplectic vision of Judgement Day. Mahler named his second symphony, "The Resurrection Symphony."

His Third and Fourth symphonies employ voices as well, but are much lighter works. For the Fifth, Sixth and Ninth Symphonies, Mahler returned to composing strictly for orchestra. The seventh and eighth symphonies, on the other hand, employ voices. (Note: with its large force of singers, the two-movement Eighth is more an oratorio than an actual symphony.)

Unlike other composers, Mahler devoted all of his composing talent to the symphony. On the list of great conductors, Mahler is ranked 17th.

Suggested listing: both Klemperer and Walter (and Bernstein) have recorded stellar accounts of Mahler's second and fourth symphonies. Walter's prewar Ninth is available on CD (EMI classics #62965).

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