Mahler Symphony no. 2 "Resurrection"

This piece has been revisited, and an updated article has been written. Please read it here.  I’ll keep the original article (below) for posterity, but I would suggest reading the new article instead.

performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Yoel Levi

Mary Phillips, mezzo-soprano, Barbara Bonney, soprano

Buckle up. This is a long one. The post and the symphony.

Before I start talking about baseless, subjective things, let’s get a few cold, hard facts out of the way.

Mahler’s second symphony was written between 1888 and 1894, and premiered on December 13, 1895 in Berlin under the composer’s baton. He was working at the Hamburg opera, substituting for Hans von Bülow, who was apparently not a nice man, but impressed by Mahler. Bülow fell ill, and Mahler began to conduct more and more. Bülow died, and there was a setting of a poem called “Der Auferstehung” (“the resurrection”) sing at the funeral. This left a heavy impression on Mahler, both at the funeral of someone he respected, and also as a musician, whereupon the final form for the symphony took hold and gave him ideas for the text for the fifth movement, which he’d been having some trouble with. He knew he wanted a choral final movement and after this, everything had taken shape. There was a program to the work that was later withdrawn by the composer.

This one was another that took me by surprise. I’ve been cooking more enjoyably lately as a result of haven music like this going while I cook. It certainly makes the entire experience far more dramatic. Chopping onions to Beethoven’s ninth or roasting vegetables with Mahler’s second in the background changes the whole atmosphere, to say the least.

That was my first experience with this symphony. When I listen to something for the first time, I want to listen to it without stopping and starting, and that’s easy to do with something like the previous symphony (Schumann 1) which clocks in round about a half hour. Even some of my favorite Tchaikovsky symphonies are manageable at 40 minutes or more. At forty minutes into Mahler 2, we’re just getting into the intro (the fourth movement) to the last movement, which itself comes in at around half an hour (depending on the recording, but we will deal with that shortly).

I listened to and wrote about Mahler 5 a few months back, and I listened to it until I beat it into submission and felt like I got my head around it enough to say something meaningful about it (although if I were to go back and read it, I’m sure it would seem inane and the opposite of insightful). It was not one of my favorites, but I did come to appreciate, if not love, some of the individual moments in the piece.

This is different.

In an effort to let music happen, as I’ve discussed before, I have been jumping around and listening through lots of other pieces instead of confining myself to this one or that one, and I have a long list of pieces I’m currently working through listening to. Cooking is a long ordeal in my house on the weekend, and I figured it was one of the few times I could listen through the entire piece at least once. When I do this, one of the only real things that I get out of a first listen is the roughest of overviews of a piece. If it has four movements, one generally expects it to have a typical four-movement type form (depending on the era) with a scherzo or minuet/trio in the third movement, adagio or something slow in the second, and that these movements can be labeled (subjectively) according to feeling, so instead of

  1. fast
  2. slow
  3. dancy
  4. fast

I may think of it something like

  1. Dramatic, angry
  2. sorrowful
  3. hopeful
  4. triumphant

That kind of outline is the kind of outline I want to have from the first listen or so of a piece, and that’s what I got with Mahler, but my previous reservations about his music were certainly a challenge in cultivating appreciation for the second. Those reservations being: “Mahler is long-winded, overly dramatic, self-centered, and doesn’t know when enough is enough.” I am eating those words, if I ever spoke them. Maybe… it’s still true, to some extent; I’ve just learned to appreciate it.

I’d kind of always felt that vocalists and choruses don’t belong in a symphony. Beethoven’s 9th was the first choral symphony, and Mahler knew he was going to draw comparisons to that masterpiece with his second symphony. Scriabin’s first and Busoni’s piano concerto (of all things) also have choral parts, among many other works. I felt about the chorus rather the way I felt about the piano in a symphony: it belongs in a different environment where it can do its thing, but don’t mix them. Well, Mahler the genius conductor and technician and composer and emotionalist does it here, and I must say it does work, for a few reasons.

Once I came to appreciate this piece and know it and anticipate the next movement or phrase or note or pause, it became more and more enjoyable. It came to the point that the opening notes of the piece grip me instantly and I already hear the entire ‘plot’, as it were, of the entire piece and how that one opening statement foreshadows and leads logically to the grand climax of the entire work and it holds you there waiting for it.

If you can’t sit for an hour and a half and focus on this piece, at least give twenty minutes to the first movement. It’s a good introduction to the emotion and power and contrasting feelings and emotions and highs and lows that this piece offers. I feel like the other four movements after that MUST be understood within the context of the entire piece. Is the second movement beautiful on its own? Definitely. Is it mesmerizingly perfect juxtaposed between the first and third? Even more definitely. It’s part of the architecture of the piece, and the plot of the whole work. The third movement gets right back to an almost restless energy (that sounds very Jewish) and these movements can only be understood within the context of one another.

After ‘getting’ this piece, I can more appreciate how Mahler felt about the writing of a symphony as creating a world. He certainly does this, and this means a few things. For one, it is immensely grand, and therefore takes an intense amount of time and energy even to listen to. It can make you tired. Needless to say, interpreting the work for performance or recording and working with an orchestra to polish the piece up and provide a meaningful interpretation of it requires far more insight.

Secondly, I do find that in the depths of heart wrenching despair and sorrow that is the fourth movement, after the emotionally charged ride of the first three movements, there has to be a way to reach a definitive climax ABOVE all the highs and lows of the previous hour. I feel the vocalist in the brief five or six minutes of the fourth movement brings us to an extreme low, kind of marking that as the bottom. At the beginning of the fifth movement, we begin to hear ourselves climbing up and experiencing the “resurrection” idea of this symphony.

The fifth movement is sort of in two parts: the first half is purely orchestral, and the second half begins with the chorus and vocalists. The first half introduces the themes that are to appear in the climax, and when I hear them break through and seemingly rise from the dust, it is as if time stops The remaining twenty-something minutes at once flies by in its natural progression towards the only logical climax of such a piece, but also crawls as if seeming to take forever to reach the climax I’ve been holding my breath to hear for the entire piece. But again, that last ten minutes means nothing if you haven’t experienced the first 75 or 80 to GET to that point, and the tasteful use of the chorus and two soloists on top of the symphony is the only way to top what he’d already given us in the previous movements, to reach even higher and make the obvious pinnacle of the piece and really illustrate the idea of ‘resurrection.’ The piece ends as joyfully and gloriously as one could ever expect. And the thing about it is, that every beat, every stroke, every pause and every phrase has its place, and this bears out the amazing structure of the piece, and I imagine this entire vision of the work came to Mahler in one preconceived piece, although I know it did not happen that way. It’s perfect.

As to recordings, I do not have enough of a grasp of classical music to criticize one interpretation over another, much less to speak on the accuracy or genuineness of an interpretation of Mahler’s works. This one motivated me to look around at LOTS of Mahler recordings. There is no one consensus regarding the ‘perfect’ Mahler cycle. Most people can’t even agree on a definitive ‘best’ recording of one symphony, much less all nine (or ten if you include the unfinished tenth, and then there’s the vocal works). I have both Bernstein cycles (the early CBS [now Sony] one and the Deutsche Grammophon one), the Ozawa cycle, the Kubelík cycle, the Solti cycle, as well as Haitink’s recording with the CBO and Levi’s recording with my Atlanta Symphony. That’s seven in all. The first few listens I gave to this work went to Solti, because that’s all I had at the time. It was not that I found any fault with it, but upon looking around at reviews, some criticized Solti for being brass-heavy with his Chicago symphony and possibly less emotional in the more intimate, soft moments of Mahler. There was talk that Kubelík’s more Romantic background helped him bring out these tenderer moments while possibly lacking some of the fire of Solti’s interpretations. One listener (maybe more) claimed that Ozawa’s interpretations were neither of the former, but just a run-of-the-mill play through of the symphonies, while a review of the piece here claims that the Ozawa cycle is of far greater quality than many tend to give it credit for. But we’re not talking about entire cycles here. People tend to gravitate toward the earlier Bernstein cycle in the integrity of interpretation of the music, being less Bernstein-ed than the DG cycle, even if the former lacks some audio quality of the latter. For me, the top three (or just those that I’ve listened to more) are

  1. Levi
  2. Solit
  3. Haitink

I quite like Haitink and the CBO, but I think this is a live recording, and the audio quality suffers a bit. Levi and the ASO recorded (maybe still does) with Telarc, and the sound quality is superb. While I’m not a huge fan of some of the intonation and pronunciation qualities of the mezzo-soprano in the fourth movement, (again, amateur here), I find the soloists to be outstandingly beautiful, especially the soprano in the fifth movement. For whatever reason, I decided that this piece goes to Levi and the ASO, even though I find absolutely nothing wrong with Solti and the CSO and it was the first interpretation of this piece that I heard.

I’m sure I would have tons more to say upon a re-read of this little review, but this is now hands down one of my favorite symphonies. Top five, for sure, possibly top three, and it’s fueled an interest to come to appreciate the rest of this man’s works. We shall see what comes of it.

Stunning hour and a half of life, this piece is. But I would like to hear from any reader who knows something about this piece. Who is your favorite? I know I’ve left out MTT, Walter, Boulez, Kaplan, Maazel, Bertini, etc… but, who is your favorite? Who does it the best?

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