Friday, 9 March 2012

Taking Cinderella to the ball

BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting my favourite Mahler symphony tonight - the Seventh. It prefaced the performance with an interesting introductory talk by critic Stephen Johnson which examined the question as to why the work is often regarded as 'problematic'. Others have called it 'controversial' and it is regularly described as being its composer's 'Cinderella' symphony, so it has had a history of neglect. I've never understood why some people find it so difficult, so the comments that had me nodding most emphatically came from the BBC presenter who introduced Stephen's talk. He said he also fails to understand why the piece has such a reputation as he finds it one of the easiest Mahler symphonies to take to. As do I. 

Stephen Johnson's suggested explanations can be summarised as follows:

- the work being too full of ideas
- its lack of a purposeful unifying narrative
- its rampant thwarting of expectations
- its being harder to grasp as a whole than other Mahler symphonies
- its disconcerting ambiguity
- its manic qualities
- its ironic distancing effects

I have to say that, as well as he made his complex case, I'm sticking with the BBC presenter simpler take on the matter. None of these things is a problem for me and I can't really see why they are for anyone else either - especially all those who flock to and love the Fifth, Sixth and Ninth Symphonies. The question of whether it's a 'rag-bag' of a symphony or one of Mahler's most radical and successful experiments (Stephen's view) can, by a slash of the Gordian Knot with Occam's Razor, be dismissed by saying (as I feel) that it doesn't really hang together as a traditional symphony but who cares? Yes, the outer movements don't connect either with each other or with the three inner movements but who cares? If it troubles a musical taxonomist, then they should perhaps just think of it as Mahler's 'Romantic Suite' and relax!

The opening movement is another of Mahler's many funeral marches, but it is so full of life as to make such a tidy description redundant. The composer himself called it 'tragic' but I hear it as 'heroic, romantic and ultimately hopeful'. To my ears, it's Mahler's Heldenleben ('A Hero's Life'). The opening theme for tenor horn is one of the composer's very best and the introductory paragraph that grows out of it is superb, singing warmly and being magnificently coloured by the orchestra. The pace quickens and melodic ideas sprout prolifically. The horn sounds another gem, provoking an early, romantic climax marked out by riding rhythms, whooping brass and swirling strings. The 'second subject' (probably the 'tenth subject' in fact!) is a lovely string melody, utterly characteristic of that strain of lyrical generosity which Mahlerians love so much. Within the ongoing development comes the movement's most magical passage - a truly beautiful section, an Alpine vision full of intensely imagined nature imagery, including bird-calls, plus plenty of horn calls and trumpet fanfares, folksong-like tunes and chorale-like writing. This ravishing interlude climaxes serenely to the accompaniment of rippling harps and trilling flutes and the sweetest of violin melodies, singing as if in love. This leads to a thoroughly-rethought recapitulation where a dark night of the soul beckons but is fiercely resisted and defeated. This passage is an exciting as any Strauss tone poem and caps a glorious movement. Yes, I do like this!

The first Nachtmusik ('Night music'), the second movement, would - were it slightly shorter - be among the candidates for the most perfect Mahler movement in any symphony. It is definitely a little bit too long, proof that however good something may be (a fine wine, perhaps) you can still have too much of it. Having granted that point, it contains an astonishing amount of wonderful music, beginning with echoing horns and bird-evoking woodwinds (the symphony's best known passage, especially in the U.K., where it was used in a long-running advertising campaign). This is the sort of music that grew out of the earliest Romantic music - the music of Weber's forest, through which a nocturnal procession wends. The main theme is a splendidly tuneful extension of the opening fanfare - a tune most composers would have given a lot to have written. (How anyone could call it 'trivial' is beyond fathoming). Classicising elements try to counter this ultra-Romanticism or, as with the lovely cello melody that emerges later, complement it. The movement's centre-piece is initially rustic-sounding but turns into what sounds for all the world like a tango - a point reinforced by its reappearance in South American costume!

The extraordinary central Scherzo is sometimes described by commentators in scary terms (one called it "a nightmare vision of disintegration"), but I have to say that for all its hallucinatory qualities I also hear it as at times playful, parodic and mysterious. Moreover, its jokes and shadows alike seems to me to be assuaged by moments of tenderness. It's masterly, tuneful stuff, however you respond to it emotionally, and its expressionist elements - the keening seconds near the start and the daring harmonies throughout - appear to anticipate the world of Alban Berg. This is my favourite movement.

Guitar and mandolin join the orchestra for the fourth movement, the second Nachtmusik - an 'Andante amoroso'. Why? Because it's a serenade. The tone is warm and nostalgic and, again, touched by Classical-sounding elements. There are many lovely moments in it.

The Rondo finale is the movement most likely to be singled out by critics as being particularly 'problematic', 'unsuccessful' even, failing to consummate the symphony and doing so at excessive length with banal material. Grains of truth can be found in these criticisms and yet...its alfresco energy carries you along like a carnival parade and I love it. The 'Meistersinger'-ish main theme is its garish banner. The 'floats' generally possess the inconsequentiality of parody (and there's plenty of that!) - but also its appeal. There are a lot of 'floats' to watch though!

Listening to tonight's performance, I again found it easy to take to. So did the audience by the sound of it!

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