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We are standing beside the coffin of a man beloved. For the last time his life, his battles, his sufferings, and his purpose pass before the mind’s eye. And now, at this solemn and deeply stirring moment, when we are released from the paltry distractions of everyday life, our hearts are gripped by a voice of awe-inspiring solemnity, which we seldom or never hear above the deafening traffic of mundane affairs. What next? it says. What is life – and what is death?

Have we any continuing existence?

Is it all an empty dream, or has this life of ours, and our death, a meaning?

If we are to go on living, we must answer this question.

(Gustav Mahler)

Mahler, brought up in the Jewish faith, had recently converted to Roman Catholicism when he wrote this.

(Taken from Arnold Schoenberg: Letters, ed. Erwin Stein, trans. Eithne Wilkins & Ernst Kaiser)

Vienna, 2 August, 1910

My dear Herr Direktor

I can scarcely tell you how awful it is for me to have to write this letter to you of all people. But you cannot imagine what impossible things I have tried, but also what possible ones, and it was all no use. I am really in a position of desperate need, otherwise I could never have brought myself to write this. And the fact that last year you offered me this does more to stop me than to encourage me.

The fact is that I have no money and have to pay the rent. It was doubtless very rash of me to take a larger flat when I was earning less. But there are many circumstances tending to excuse me, disappointments of hopes that were so near fulfilment that anyone would have counted on it, and such things. So I must beg you to lend me from 300 to 400 guilders. I shall quite certainly be able to pay it back next year when I am at the Conservatory.

I cannot tell you how unhappy it makes me to have to tarnish my relationship to you by bringing up such a matter. And I must say: I should not have done it on my own behalf; I can get over such a thing all right. But when one has a wife and children one is no longer the only person who counts.

May I ask you to telegraph letting me know whether you can grant my request. And – if it is not asking too much – if you can help me, if possible to telegraph the money or at least send it express.

I earnestly ask you not be angry. And I have only one wish: that your attitude to me will not be unfavourably influenced by this.

Hoping to have news soon,

I am, as ever, your devoted

Arnold Schönberg

An Italian conductor, a Swedish contralto and a Siberian soprano.

Here is Mahler’s programme note for the last movement of his Symphony No. 2, included in Gustav Mahler: Erinnerungen und Briefe by Alma Mahler (trans. Basil Creighton):

We are confronted once more by terrifying questions.

A voice is heard crying aloud:

“The end of all living beings is come – the Last Judgment is at hand and the horror of the days of days has come.”

The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on in endless procession. The great and the little ones of the earth – kings and beggars, righteous and godless – all press on – the cry for mercy and forgiveness strikes fearfully on our ears. The wailing rises higher – our senses desert us, consciouness dies at the approach of the eternal spirit. The Last Trump is heard – the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out; in the eerie silence that follows we can just catch the distant, barely audible song of a nightingale, a last tremulous echo of earthly life! A chorus of saints and heavenly beings softly breaks forth:

“Thou shalt arise, surely thou shalt arise.”

Then appears the glory of God! A wondrous, soft light penetrates us to the heart – all is holy calm!

And behold – it is no judgment – there are no sinners, no just. None is great, none is small. There is no punishment and no reward.

An overwhelming love lightens our being. We know and are.

(Mahler had converted to Catholicism because, as a Jew, he was barred from becoming Music Director of the Vienna Opera.)

Alma Mahler records that Debussy walked out during the second movement of this symphony at its first Paris performance. He said later that it was too much like Schubert.

Fuck Debussy.

Said to be a musical portrait of Stalin, this music speaks of cruelty and terror.

It is also fucking loud.

I saw Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra back in the day performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 6. It was fucking loud.

Incidentally, the London Symphony Orchestra gave Solti a nickname: “The Screaming Skull”.

Opera Chic (“I’m a young American woman living in Milan, and you’re not. I go to La Scala a lot, and you don’t.”) inspired this post by reminding me that Seiji Ozawa is back following treatment for throat cancer.

Béla Bartók’s music is beautiful. That’s the thing here. Now, I’m not much of a fan of Seiji Ozawa’s recordings. While I find his recordings generally well executed, I also find them, or at least a good portion of them, a bit on the dull side. Against this I needed to balance the fact that I haven’t bought a new version of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra for probably eight months or more. Clearly I was remiss in my duties. Sure, I could have opted for Christoph Eschenbach’s fairly recent recording, but Ozawa’s was available for a silly low price, so it got the nod. And so I undertook to listen to that most satisfying pairing of the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta along with the wartime warhorse played by the still relatively new Saito Kinen Orchestra. In concert, no less.

The disc opens with the M.S.P.C. It’s a bit hard to determine what’s coming in the opening passages of the Andante tranquillo. It opens with hushed pianissimo playing, with nicely delicate string playing. But it seems a little too rounded, a little too warm. As things gradually build up, and then build up some more, things stay on the soft side. Still the tension and volume continue to build noticeably until at 4’16” a big ol’ thwack of the bass drum and full cry of the orchestra announces the arrival of the meaty (or at least meatier) part of the movement.

The orchestra plays extremely well. The only thing that really seems to be missing is bite. Sure, the strings sound nicely dissonant, but surely they should sound more astringent than they do here. Anyway, after the big outburst, Ozawa and company quiet things down again and create a nicely sinister air.

One thing that simply cannot go unnoticed is the amazing sound quality. Detail abounds throughout the orchestra, with the best sounding celesta I recall hearing and a pinpoint xylophone ringing out stage right among the highlights. Yet even with all that glorious detail the recording retains a pleasing warmth. It rather reminds me of Daniel Barenboim’s Mahler 7 recording; that is, it’s essentially a perfect sound.

So, on to the second movement. The sound captures the wonderfully played strings in all their not-too-dissonant glory, and then Ozawa changes the playing style to sound almost jocular. A minor blemish comes with the piano-percussion doubling, which lacks that last degree of snap, though the playing is solid. The Adagio opens tautly and quietly, with that razor-sharp xylophone reappearing, and the strings do their thing. Greater tension is achieved and maintained than earlier on, and the playing is deliciously colourful, and that ravishing celesta comes back to tickle one’s ears.

To close the work, all concerned play with greater tension and energy, yet maintain the glorious, rich, warm sound that has defined the recording up to this point. The strings start to sound just biting enough, and the percussion adds enough zing. What to make of it all? Well, sadly it lacks that certain something, that certain Hungarian-ness that some other notable Bartók conductors bring, and it sounds just a bit too polite at times. But it also sounds amazingly beautiful and lived-in. I’m guessing Ozawa knows and loves the piece, because so much attention has clearly been lavished on it. This will not be to everyone’s taste, but so what?

The mighty Concerto for Orchestra isn’t quite as good, though it ain’t too shabby. To start with, the sound isn’t as good. Oh, sure, it’s very high quality, and it shares the same warm overall sound of the M.S.P.C., but it’s not as detailed and precise, with the orchestra sounding like a giant blob of beautiful sound at times, not that I’m complaining. That quibble aside, there are other quibbles, but they’re mixed in with decidedly un-quibble-inducing playing. The first movement opens with nice and beefy if not super-detailed low string playing and shimmering violins. The overall effect is not exactly dark or eerie or foreboding, but it does possess a hint of theatricality. When the movement transitions to the Allegro vivace section, all the strings swell in a grand manner. Too old-world grand for this piece? Dunno. Don’t care. As for the tasty winds, well, they’re, um, delectable, but they aren’t quite pungent enough. As things progress, the strings take on a nicely sharper sound which builds up to a loud, but not edgy enough fanfare before winding up the first movement strongly.

The second movement finds the paired instruments doing well enough, though I could have done with more ‘cackle’ from the oboes, and the stage right strings really catching one’s attention when the clarinets and then the trumpets play. Some minor imperfections in the playing are so minor as to make the playing seem better. The great Elegia is appropriately sombre in mood and ethereal in sound, with fine, clear winds led by more robust oboe playing. The piccolo playing rises above the din nicely enough, even if some other recordings boast sharper, more articulate playing than here (Ivan Fischer’s, say).

“Bartók is beautiful”. Nowhere is that message more emphatically reinforced than in the interrupted intermezzo. The main theme is played more beautifully than in any other version I can recall, with the strings so sumptuous sounding that one wants the theme repeated before going on. Is it too romanticized? Perhaps. So what? As for the crude interruptions from Shostakovich 7, I must say that I found them a bit too polite. So’s the response. The carnival music afterwards is nicely done and fills the stage, but it’s not quite sharp enough – but, did I mention that the main theme is beautifully played? It is at the end, too. The finale opens with a slightly too slow and thick fanfare, but then it’s off to the races, with the entire band playing extremely well and with plenty of drive. While the sound is not as spectacular as in the opening work, it is here where one really begins to appreciate the wonders of contemporary digital recording: the sound is rich, loud, clear, and massive, without any hint of compression or hardness, at least at the volume at which I listened – just shy of concert level. All told, this is a good version, certainly better than I anticipated, though it’s not one of the greats in my estimation.

The Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, who led the opening concert at the Sydney Opera House and was the first non-Briton to lead the Last Night of the Proms, has died in London at the age of 84.

Charles Mackerras was born in the US and raised in Australia before coming to England to study music.

Though internationally acclaimed, he disdained stardom and missed out on the plum post at Covent Garden.

He had become maybe my favourite conductor over the last few years. What a great man – great conductor, great musicologist, great reader and lover of music, great arranger too (Pineapple Poll). This is really sad news. He was the one conductor among the current generation of 80-somethings I was hoping would live longest; sorry, Haitink, Harnoncourt, etc. Not least because he was due to perform Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Mozart’s 40th and Schubert’s 4th in London this year – concerts which, since I’m moving to London, I was expecting to be the best nights of my year.

I don’t think I ever heard a recording of his that was not good, whether it was 18th 19th or 20th Century – he seemed to bring a fresh and exciting and always musically rewarding interpretation to the works he conducted.

It is very sad news, but he had a long and full life and left behind a great recorded legacy; you can’t ask for much more than that.

I recall an excellent concert at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester nearly ten years ago, where Sir Charles conducted Mahler’s Sixth Symphony with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. This was issued on CD with the BBC Music Magazine about a year later and I recalled how special and heartfelt the performance was. It is this, which I am spinning now, preparing for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony from the BBC Proms tonight. Great memories, great performance, very sad loss.

R.I.P. Alan Charles MacLaurin Mackerras, conductor, born 17 November 1925; died 14 July 2010


The modest maestro

Many musicians and music lovers of all age groups, young and old, take intense interest in the music of Gustav Mahler. For many, once they get into it, it is a lifelong fascination that usually only deepens with time.

And it is easy to see why. Mahler’s music happens on many levels, and many elements of the great musical tradition that he came from echo through his music. In many ways, Mahler was the musical voice of the end of a great epoch. The spectrum of his musical expression goes from the simple, naive, fairy tale like to the outer limits of the human psyche.

But his music is also formally and structurally very complex. His motivic work is masterful, both in the evocativeness of his themes and motives, and the musical atmospheres he creates from these elements. He is a harmonically very versatile and advanced composer; his tonal language reaches from the utmost simplicity of folk songs to the dissolution of harmonic relationships. His instrumentation is unparalleled in the specific way he makes use of the expressive character of all instrument groups.

But Mahler is much more than the sum of the compositional elements he composed his works from. His symphonies are all-encompassing dramas, world ideas expressed through music, discovery trips into the inner circles of the human soul. He sums up many themes and ideas which moved people of his day, and which still appeal to many people today. In that sense, as historically anchored as his music is, as timeless it is at the same time.

And Mahler didn’t stop there. With the early stages of dissolution of tonality and a new understanding of motivic expression, he reached out into spheres of music that nobody had touched before him. The autumnal remoteness of parts of his late works, especially Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony are quite astounding to hear, especially from a composer whose early works were so demonstrative and explicit in their use of dramatic gestures, naive and earthy folk elements, and literature inspired thematic development, and what’s even more astonishing is to hear how in his late work, all these elements coexist in musical worlds of great inner complexity.

In short, Mahler is really in many ways the sum and quintessence of a very important epoch in cultural history, and since there are so many elements concentrated in his music, it is not surprising that it catches the attention of many open ears, and usually, it doesn’t let go of them either.

This is very worrying. I still adore it with all my heart, respect, love, worship it; but I’ve noticed that I’m listening to it less and less. I haven’t bought a CD for months, and recently I haven’t really been listening to music at all; when I do it’s usually some pop song.

I want to recapture that old love. When I do summon up the energy to put on a Mahler symphony my soul burns bright, I just hardly ever do for some reason

I wonder if this affects us when we get to a certain age. There comes a time when we think we have heard everything, e.g. yet another new release of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1. How many more to come, we’ve heard it all before, then boredom sets in.

An old professor of mine was of the opinion that people listen to too much music. While I would never get rid of the recordings I have, I think there’s something to that. In particular, we don’t give the attention to music that it deserves.

The answer could be listening less. I try to set aside time when I can give music my full attention in a relaxed environment without distractions.

Turn the lights out.
Pour a glass of wine or good single malt.
Don’t spill the drink in the dark.

One afternoon in November, 1901, as I was walking along the Ring with some friends, I happened to meet the Zuckerkandls. Zuckerkandl, besides being an eminent anatomist, was something of a highbrow and had a great sense of humour.

“We’ve got Mahler coming in tonight – won’t you come?”

I declined. I did not want to meet Mahler. In fact I had purposely and with considerable difficulty avoided meeting him that summer, because of all the stories people told about him.

(Alma Mahler, tr. Basil Creighton, Erinnerungen und Briefe)

Gustav Mahler’s wife was one of the 20th century’s hottest women.

She did compose, you know, and she was not all that bad either. I have a CD of Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy and tacked on to fill up the disc is a collection of six of her songs presented by the mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion. The foremost fact ranking the songs in my favour is that Alma wrote them for mezzos, avoiding shrieking excesses by high sopranos, not my favourite category of female vocal performers.

She was really an interesting woman, very intelligent and cultured. It seems she took it very hard when Gustav told her basically, “Hey, it’s all about me, I’m the composer in this family!”

Unfortunately the literature available about her is mostly dealing with her personal life, calling her a femme fatale, among the nicer attributes. She was an intelligent woman and it was intelligent, creative men who found her attractive. What’s wrong with that? The attitude of her husband, unappreciative of her talent, was more the fault of the period in time where “equal rights” was not in fashion.


Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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