A selection of recent posts


To help navigate through a plethora of recent posts, this is just a selection of some of the more substantial ones:

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Mahler 10

After returning from an exhilarating day with the Zhihua temple at the BM, I caught S-Simon Rattle‘s overwhelming Mahler 10 with the reborn LSO on BBC Radio 3—and now I find it’s on youtube! (BTW, yet another demo of the benefits of conducting from memory.)

Until July you can, nay MUST hear, and see, the whole concert (Mahler from 1.36.47, preceded by a rare Tippett piece). And here’s the 1980 recording of the Tenth with Simon (“as he was then”—before he was awarded the impediment) conducting the Bournemouth symphony orchestra:

Only half-written before Mahler died in 1911, the work was hardly performed until Deryck Cooke’s completed version became popular in the 1960s. Though I got to know it not so long after, it’s ages since I immersed myself in it.

Under Mahler’s own torments the music often splinters, exemplifying the later devastation of European culture. In context (from 16.15 on the 1980 version) the Scream chord is truly horrifying, presaged by huge nightmarish clashing granite slabs of sound, linked by a terrifying high sustained trumpet note, and followed by a screeching top D from the 1st violins:

Mahler 10 scream

Now I don’t generally go in for this kind of thing,* but after my recent visit to Sachsenhausen one might hear that short episode (under two minutes) as a graphic condensed soundscape foretelling the torments of Europe from c1930 to 1945—like deathbed episodes flashing past:

  • 16.15 the descent into hell begins
  • 16.44 rise of Nazism
  • 17.06 brief moment of false hope (Weimar cabaret): desperate “Maybe we’ll be all right”
  • 17.25 Kristallnacht; invasions of Poland and Russia
  • 17.37 the concentration camp system
  • 17.50 the horrors of the camps are finally revealed.

Of course, you can ignore all that, and just hear it as a cumulative drama of agony.

* * *

An ominous opening to the Finale—inspired, according to Alma, by hearing from afar the funeral of a heroic fireman in New York [1]—leads into an exquisite flute solo (from 53.57) and sustained string lines (with more of those climactic struggling quintuplets, e.g. from 1.11.51) almost recalling the finale of the 3rd symphony. Despite interruptions from the funeral drum and the Scream, the mood is more serene, less desolate than his other late works.

Mahler 10 end

In last week’s LSO version the violins (and violas?!) made their final searing leap on the G string!!! [My Mahlerian exclamation marks].

M10 end

The Barshai version of the symphony is also much praised:

(for a discerning series of photos to accompany the finale, see here)

* * *

Mahler’s “late” works are such a comprehensive series of farewells (abschied; not so late, but perhaps most moving of all is Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommenwith a similar but pianissimo final violin leap) that it’s always strange to realize that he died at the age of 50. What would have become of him had he lived into the 1940s?


[1] For accessible accounts of Mahler’s last years, the 1907 New York funeral, and the history of Deryck Cooke’s version, see Lebrecht, Why Mahler?, pp.171–223, 275–9. Here’s Alma’s recollection of the funeral (Gustav Mahler: memories and letters, p.135):

Marie Uchatius, a young art-student, paid me a visit one day in the Hotel Majestic. Hearing a confused noise, we leaned out of the window and saw a long procession in the broad street along the side of Central Park. It was the funeral cortege of a fireman, of whose heroic death we had read in the newspaper. The chief mourners were almost immediately beneath us when the procession halted, and the master of ceremonies stepped forward and gave a short address. From our eleventh floor window we could only guess what he said. There was a brief pause and then a roll of muffled drums, followed by a dead silence. The procession then
moved forward and all was over.

The scene brought tears to my eyes and I looked anxiously at Mahler’s window. But he too was leaning out and his face was streaming with tears. The brief roll of the muffled drums impressed him so deeply that he used it in the Tenth Symphony.


* Imputing verbal programmes to musical detail, I mean: the whole point of music is that it expresses things that can’t be expressed in words. Even novelists—who do use words!—find this irritating; I can’t find a source or precise quote, but as I recall, when asked “What were you trying to say in this book?”—one frustrated novelist replied, “I was ‘trying’ to say exactly what I did say.” (Martin Amis, would be my guess. Anyone?)


Apart from the Matthew Passion and Nina Hagen (yet more unlikely bedfellows), here are further compelling reasons to learn German. While I’ve never been drawn to the mainstream lieder scene, I owe my enchantment by these song cycles, yet again (cf. Mahler’s Rückert lieder, and Ravel’s Shéhérazade), to Boulez:

First Wagner—the Wesendonck lieder. Christa Ludwig, with Klemperer, 1962:

or the wonderful Anne Sofie von Otter:

Then Berg, exploring a path opened up by his mentor Mahler. The Seven early songs (which I got to love at our 1971 NYO Prom):

(or a live version here, with helpful Japanese subtitles);

and the (five, nearly as early) Altenberg lieder—to picture-postcard texts (Ansichtskartentexte, another entry in our lexicon of German mouthfuls. Fin-de-siècle Viennese haiku?):

The third song is haunting:

Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus
Hattest nie Sorge um Hof und Haus
Leben und Traum von Leben—plötzlich ist alles aus!
Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus

(After the menacing whisper of “plötzlich ist alles aus!” (plötzlich is officially my favourite word), find me a singer who can diminuendo from pp up to that final top C—Nina Hagen, perhaps?!)


Mahler 9

Mahler 9 is always overwhelming in performance. The NYO Prom in 2015 was amazing (cf. here), and I’ve just heard Esa-Pekka Salonen doing it with the Philharmonia (reviewed here; cf. here; see also Harding’s Mahler 6 Prom).

I’ve got a lot of time for Salonen—and not just because of the wonderful story about his interview for the LA Phil job! There’s something special about composers (also including Boulez) conducting Mahler, some personal identification with his struggles. Mahler anyway foretold the whole torment of 20th-century history—his music atomized, fragmenting, ersterbend—and we can only hear the 9th symphony with our own ears (that link also referring to Taruskin; see also here). Mahler never got to conduct it, or even hear it; while it remains startlingly modern even today, it’s hard to believe that after its belated UK premiere in 1930 it wasn’t played in the USA (where Mahler was fêted even while he was composing it) until 1931. The symphony only became a pillar of the repertoire with the Mahler craze of the 60s—where I came in. Without entertaining any notions of the moral value of WAM, I have a fantasy of getting Chicago street gangs to sit through it.

Salonen brings out the Philharmonia’s talent for making chamber music amidst grand forces. Not having worked with him, I find him easy on the eye, and he looks comfortable to work with—more selfless, less anguished than Bernstein or Rattle, but far from the schoolmasterly air of Haitink or the aloof conductors of yore.

Anyway, like the Abschied, or Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen, Mahler 9 live is a devastating experience, not to be missed.

Mahler 9 end



Conducting from memory

As S-S-Simon Rattle formally takes over the LSO, his latest media love-in reminded me of Harry and Paul’s fine departure in their Scousers series:

But seriously though folks, some thoughts about conducting from memory. As both a performer and a concert-goer, I love it when conductors do this. I suppose it excites me partly because I’ve spent most of the last three decades toiling under what Norman Lebrecht calls “semi-conductors” in the early-music world, where it’s very rare—but never mind them.

We may compare WAM soloists—and musicians in most the world (to take an an entirely random instance: um, Daoist ritual specialists…). Conducting from memory now seems to me like a basic courtesy to the orchestra. Conductors don’t have to worry about strings going out of tune, or reeds misbehaving, or splitting notes—they’re earning a zillion times more than the poor people who actually play the music, and all they have to do is “wave the stick until the music stops, then turn around and bow”. And the benefits, for both players and audience, are immense.

Conductors have more nuanced views, of course. Here’s Paul Hostetter:

Conductors had the score in front of them, not because it wasn’t memorized most of the time, but rather almost as a reverent gesture to the composer’s intent.

Similarly, John Murton:

I always interpreted this as a sign of humility towards the music they were performing, perhaps even in some quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance.

This is revealing. But Will Crutchfield comments:

… among [conductors] it is becoming something of a point of honour to perform without a score.
And why shouldn’t they, if we’re going to say soloists ought to? There are essential differences. First and simplest, it’s harder. There are many instruments and thus far more notes to be memorized; even if you can easily recall the musical substance, the matter of who’s playing what, when, with whom is complex and constantly shifting. And the conductor does not have the benefit of motor or tactile memory of how the notes feel because he does not play any of the notes.
For the same reason, conductors are the only musicians who can fake memorization, or perform a piece ”off book” when it is only partly learned. If it’s a matter of putting down the right keys on the piano, you either know it or you don’t. But if a conductor succeeds in memorizing the score at a gross level (the basic rhythms, the major entrances), he can go ahead and conduct ”by heart” while he’s still learning the details, or perhaps without ever learning some of them. If you don’t think this happens, even in big places, have a beer with any longtime orchestral player and ask.

The practice caught on from Toscanini. Furtwängler, Karajan (sorry), BöhmBernstein, Barbirolli… Of all conductors I would expect to dispense with the score, it would be Rozhdestvensky—he’s so spontaneous and direct. But apparently he always has it in front of him, and it’s electrifying anyway.

The score can serve as a safety-net for the conductor; for the band, as a psychologically stabilizing element. But it’s also as a protective layer insulating the conductor from communicating directly—we know how much more thrilling a performance is without the safety-net.

The focal position of the score reminds us all that we’re here not so much to celebrate an incandescent moment of communication between musicians, as to reinforce the hegemony of a dead composer. During the “performance” the audience may even consolidate this by occasionally resorting to the printed programme.

I just find it distracting, and a sad limitation to the potential for the direct engagement that should be intrinsic to any kind of performance.

What better illustration of the wonders of memorization than Simon Rattle with the 2nd movement of Mahler 5:

Even more radical is to get (and pay?!) the orchestra to play from memory too, as the Aurora orchestra often does:

Mahler 6 at the Proms

There’s nothing to beat the atmosphere of a Mahler symphony at the Proms. Following the first, second, fourth, and tenth symphonies this season, I just went to hear the sixth, with the amazing Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Harding.

Hot on the heels of the equally fine Concertgebouw orchestra in the fourth symphony, the Vienna Phil sounds like an enormous marshmallow cake, with individual personalities smothered in Schlagrahm—apart from the cowbells, evidently from a large herd. Notwithstanding changes in performance practice over the past century, standing beside recent early-music versions of such repertoire, venerable orchestras like this convey a tangible feeling of direct continuity with tradition.

And the Vienna Phil is even belatedly allowing a handful of women into its ranks—whatever next?*

Here’s Barbirolli’s 1967 version with the New Philharmonia (as the old Philharmonia was then known):

There’s the usual lengthy debate about the position of the exquisite slow movement (unfairly eclipsed by those of the fourth and fifth symphonies, I feel). In line with Mahler’s own rethink, Harding put it second, but I side with those who overrule the composer’s revision of the order—not so much for the argument of the tonal scheme, but rather so that the Scherzo can continue the demonic power of the first movement (as in the fifth symphony), the slow movement then making its full impact before the devastation of the finale. Christoph Eschenbach makes this argument in an interesting page where various conductors reflect on all the symphonies.

God, how I’d love to get stuck into passages like this again (from 1.10.39 on the Barbirolli version, responding desperately to the hammer-blow):M6 1

M6 2

M6 3
Let’s return to the Vienna Phil, with Mahler in more meditative vein—the divine slow movement of the fourth symphony under Bernstein, followed by the final song:


* “I dunno, where’s it all going to end, eh? They’ll be demanding control over their own bodies next. PC gone mad if you ask me.”


All in a chord is a stimulating series of short programmes on BBC Radio 3:


including the horrifying Scream from Mahler’s 10th symphony (above); The Rite of Spring; and an exploration of the minimalist style through Terry Riley’s In C. Making connections between them, Ivan Hewitt and his discussants provide fine social context, to boot—”harmony as a reflection of history”.

Meanwhile, most of the world’s societies have always got along perfectly well without harmony. “But that’s not important right now“.

I’ve always understood harmonic language more by instinct and experience than by theory. I trust plenty of other orchestral musos are more erudite about chords and harmony, but it is jazzers who are most deeply imbued in the language—and not just the keyboard players.