Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Parody and Pathos

(Eschenbach going very very slowly indeed...)

SO the last month was quite a strange one, all told. Inamongst all the shocking banalities that were the sum of my life and yet couldn't possibly be of any interest to you, I did manage to see two different performances of Mahler's 9th Symphony in the space of a week. The first was at the Royal Festival Hall, the London Philharmonic conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, preceded by Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Overall it was very good, although the sound was somewhat lacking in the hall - none of the crescendi ever actually made that much of an impact. Eschenbach handled the irony and grotesqueness of the two inner movements well, with the percussion in the Landler occasionally giving the impression of rimshots accentuating sick jokes, and the Rondo-Burlesque blasting along at a thoroughly sarcastic pace. Unfortunately however, I really didn't get the way Eschenbach handled the finale. The best recordings I've heard of the movement have always been determined, and in fact rather consistent in tempo; there always seems to be a sense of drive about them. But the way Eschenbach repeatedly brought the movement to a near halt, a near silent halt at that, meant that the performance required a blasting insistence from the three climaxes that was just not forthcoming, losing much of the movement's power in the process. And by the time the final pages arrived, it was almost as it had bottomed out too early, leaving Eschenbach a little bit lost in a sea of uncontrolled coughing, as we waited for his hands to drop into the silence.

Gergiev, at the Barbican with the LSO a week later was very different, if a little more conventional. The first half was Shostakovitch's Cello Concerto No.2, a piece I didn't know, but which was an inspired choice, with its sarcastic almost-disco moments inamongst the gloom complementing the Mahler's self-undermining nature excellently. For the Mahler, the sound was far better than at the Royal Festival Hall, the orchestra sounding far more full, the strings very much in the soft and silky mode, the climaxes packing real punch. But compared to the Eschenbach, the two ironic inner movements were played less for laughs and more for angularity, which I felt to be a flaw. Mostly this approach backfired, although a moment near the end of the Rondo-Burlesque - when Mahler gives us a melody on which the sugar has been laid so thickly it's almost sickening - came as such a shock out of the brutal rush Gergiev was in that myself and my companion both nearly burst into fits of laughter. For the finale, Gergiev played it exactly as it should be played, with the almost Beckettian insistence of the writing totally apparent, and the three major climaxes really leaving you exhausted. Eventually, after the final attempt of vitality to assert itself fails and the music drifts off towards nothingness, the quoted melody from the Kindertotenlieder in the last few bars made my hair stand on end, as it bloody well should do. Not exactly a ground breaking performance, but it's one of the finest works in all of music so if it's done well then there's really not much better to be had, period.

Mahler 9 Finale (excerpt) by entschwindet und vergeht
Afterwards, I made this arrangement of the first 18 bars of the finale. It's not very appropriate to the character of the music, but I felt compelled to do it, so there.

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