Schoenberg’s piece terrified me.
And every Mahler symphony ever written is one of the greatest symphonies ever written.
I died a little bit last night, in the most moving, inspiring way.
This is a concert I’d been waiting to attend for at least the past eight months, as part of the season ticket package I bought last summer (still with a dozen or so concerts left), but Mahler! Needless to say I was excited.
But I was also anxious.
Mahler six is an interesting piece. While it is one of his most traditional in many ways (four movements, exposition repeat in the first movement, no vocalists, etc.) it is obviously far from traditional in most other ways. But that aside, it’s unique in that it offers interesting performance choices for the conductor and orchestra.
There’s an outstandingly broad range of tempi for the first movement, from Chailly’s shockingly slow approach (that some do love), to Boulez’s incredibly powerful a-little-slower-than-normal approach to breakneck tempi like Kubelik’s. That aside, there’s also the order of the inner two movements: scherzo second or third? And then there’s the issue of the hammer blow: how and how many? I have my personal preferences after having picked out my own favorite recordings (Boulez/Vienna, Sanderling/St. Petersburg, Abbado/Lucerne) and was interested to see how our performance would play out. Literally.
In some cases, you want to hear in a new way a work you may have heard a million times before, to give you a new perspective, challenge your viewpoint on it, but… for me, last night, I just wanted Mahler the way I have decided I like Mahler, as rare as it is (especially here) to get a performance like this.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind back to about a half hour before the concert. I had some friends in tow, and some readers (I guess you’d call them) and folks to catch up with at the concert, and as we walked in, I managed to run into (almost literally) the conductor himself, one 呂紹嘉. He was dressed incognito, in a track jacket over his neon white tuxedo shirt, preparing to give a brief introduction to the program in the lobby. I shook his hand, and gushed a bit about how excited I was for the program, and thanked him for putting the movements in “the right order.”
Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw was narrated in English, with the text projected onto screens in both English and Chinese. It’s a short piece, and it was announced to every individual walking in that night that there would be no intermission.
I knew about the work, and had listened to the first minute or so, but figured I’d rather have my first listen in the concert hall. And it was soul-crushing. The narrator, while still possessing a (very mild) Taiwanese accent in his English read with passion and emotion, especially in the German-language parts. The orchestra played crisply and passionately. There’s an innate kind of ‘make it stop’ reaction to hearing the narration of such brutality alongside Schoenberg’s musical setting. It’s violent, grotesque, horrifying, suggesting the unbearable, but with such raw frankness. When the male choir begin to sing in Hebrew (on the screens in phoneticized English), one has the feeling that both one’s life as well as the piece will shortly end. And sure enough, the piece comes to a sudden halt, and the ensuing silence is either a relief, or the most haunting sound of all.
Feeling like I needed a hug, and feeling like clapping was almost inappropriate, we waited for the stage to clear as seats were added and speakers removed (the narrator’s volume was nearly perfect, almost echo-free, at a comfortable volume, only once or twice in danger of being overtaken by the orchestra). When I asked my friend next to me what he thought (as we’d just had dinner and chatted briefly [briefly?!] about Schoenberg and his 12-tone system) he said with a perplexed look, “I feel it…. like, physically.” Indeed.
Put in this context, Mahler 6 is an even more powerful thing. With Schoenberg’s work premiered in 1948 (?), having seen two world wars, one is readily aware of horrors Schoenberg saw. Mahler however, wrote his ‘Tragische’ symphony nearly a decade before the outbreak of the first World War. Put side by side like this, they seem to complement one another in a horrifyingly suitable way.
I knew we would get scherzo second, and I was thrilled. But would we take this death-march opening theme of the movement at a jogging pace or a true march? At the first downbeat (well, the first few), one could hear the layout of entire symphony unfold, the digging crunch of the basses and cellos for the opening theme, the contrasting, sweeping, sweet ‘Alma theme,’ presenting a starkly effective, powerful, very Austrian-sounding sonata form movement, carving out an imposing but powerful obelisk of a first movement from thin air, the foundation on which the entire symphony will lie.
The struggle is real. The overwhelming effect in hearing an outstanding live performance of this piece is struggle. I’m not sure if it’s tragedy, but struggle. Der Kampf perhaps would have been a more appropriate title, as it had still not been appropriated by another (more despicable) Austrian. Anyway, the contrast is so striking between the themes of the first movement, obviously, but how throughout the piece there are roaring passages with searing brass, kettle drum and then suddenly, out of nowhere… a violin solo, or a solitary (very well-executed) horn, a delicate flute, cowbells. The monumental scope of the entire work is almost shocking, such juxtaposition of styles, emotions, expressions, but how it all seems to fit in place.
The scherzo begins with its relentless echoes of the first movement, but with a stunningly melodic, pristine trio, a bucolic scene where you can almost get comfortable before things ratchet back up. Some passages in the inner two movements were taken slower or faster than I’d expected, but the overwhelming effect was that the structure of the piece, the overview of the work itself was crystal clear and solid as a rock.
And finally, the shimmering harps to begin the hellacious final movement. And what a movement it is, with distant, pained, struggling, distorted echoes of the first movement, now tossed and turned and disfigured into their own new existences, and this back-and-forth between triumph and hell, between roaring and humming, the terrifying and the serene is no stronger than in this final movement, and the NSO played with accuracy, drive, and fire. While a horn or a trumpet may have begun to suffer from fatigue, the soloists throughout the entire work performed exquisitely well: almost every horn solo was perfectly executed, the tuba solos in the final movement were wonderful, as were the bassoon and contrabassoon, bass clarinet, and all the rest. In such suddenly exposed moments, the interaction and twiddly call-and-response solos must be tricky, but they were deliciously devilish.
I could go on.
In short, the execution of the hammer blow was outstandingly effective. I could feel it in my feet and my chest. It rattled the soul. Not two times, but three. The third hammer blow was restored.
As the final, sudden, rattling fate motif thundered out from the percussion to mark the end of the piece, applause again felt out of place. The conductor held the silence in the air as everyone palpably held their breath, at least for myself realizing I was only beginning to digest this piece that I’d listened to how many dozens of times before. Slowly, somberly, the conductor’s hands reached his side, and still no applause. He gave a quick half-bow to the orchestra and the silence was finally broken. While it was a bit disappointing that moment didn’t last a second longer, it’s likely for the best, lest all 2,000 people be stuck, both paralyzed by the terror and inspired at the beauty of life, overwhelmed in thought, forever sitting in our concert seats unable to move.
But we did. And there were tons of people to say hello to and chat with, and if you are one of them, then I’m sorry we didn’t chat more. Send me an email/message and let’s catch up.
Thank you, NSO and Maestro 呂紹嘉 for what was a thought-provoking, powerful, intensely moving, perfectly executed evening, and a reading of what must be one of the greatest symphonies ever put on paper.