July 30, 2020


Mahler: where to start with his music: Conceived on a massive scale, Gustav Mahler's seismic symphonies draw on the folk poetry of his native Bohemia and include the longest ever written by a major composer (Andrew Clements, 29 Jul 2020, The Guardian)

If the Seventh Symphony remains one of Mahler's most enigmatic works, the Sixth is one of his greatest achievements, with a finale punctuated by three huge hammer blows - the third of which, according to Alma, fells the hero of the symphony "like a tree". The superstitious composer removed the third blow from the score after the first performance in 1906, but Alma identified the blows with seismic events in Mahler's life the following year: the death of their daughter Maria, his own diagnosis of a potentially fatal heart condition, and his forced resignation from the Hofoper, supposedly because he was spending too much time composing.

By the beginning of 1908, Mahler was conducting in New York. as director of the Metropolitan Opera. His performances there were generally successful, but he resigned the following year to take up a post with the New York Philharmonic. Summers were spent back in Austria composing, with Das Lied von der Erde beginning a final trilogy of works premiered after Mahler's death. But the massive, choral Eighth Symphony, the so-called Symphony of a Thousand, which he'd completed in 1906, stands apart from the works on either side of it. Its premiere in Munich in 1910 was one of the biggest triumphs of Mahler's life, and the last time he conducted the first performance of one of his works: he died eight months later in Vienna.

Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), which Mahler superstitiously avoided describing as his "ninth symphony" because so many composers had died after completing nine symphonies, is a song cycle with the dimensions of a symphony, ending with a half-hour movement, Abschied, that seems a very conscious farewell to life. Yet having lived to complete it, Mahler did write a Ninth Symphony - his astonishingly moving acceptance of the inevitability of death - and began a Tenth too, a much more autobiographical work riven with fears and doubts after his discovery of Alma's affair with the young architect Walter Gropius. [...]

For more than 30 years after his death, only a few conductors bothered with Mahler's music. The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg ploughed a solitary furrow promoting his cause at the Amsterdam Concergebouw - though other than a performance of the Fourth Symphony, none of Mengelberg's Mahler seems to be available on disc. Leonard Bernstein was one of the leaders of the Mahler renaissance when it began in earnest in the 1960s, while Bernard Haitink continued the Mahler tradition at the Concertgebouw. In the digital era, the cycles by Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon) and Riccardo Chailly (Decca) have been pre-eminent. Other great conductors such as Otto Klemperer and Herbert von Karajan were more selective in the works they tackled, though some of their recordings - Klemperer's accounts of the Second Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, and especially Karajan's elegiac version of the Ninth - are among the finest Mahler recordings of all time.

Posted by at July 30, 2020 8:14 AM